Mark McDermott

Jewish holidays added to school calendar

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The Redondo Beach Unified School District Board of Education Tuesday night added Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the district’s non-school day holidays.

The two days mark the beginning and end of the 10 day period known as the Jewish High Holy Days each September. The only religious holiday previously observed in the district is Christmas. Students also take a weeklong break from school informally known as “ski week” each spring.

Assistant Superintendent Nancy Billinger said the fundamental consideration for observing the two Jewish holidays was the fiscal impact of not doing so. Student attendance on those two days has increasingly lagged, she said, and has thus decreased state funding based on daily enrollment.

“We are only funded as a school district when there are students in the seats,” Billinger said. “So anytime we have a big dip in student enrollment on certain days, there is a big dip in funding. Based on that we took a look at way we could regain the funding.”

Billinger said that the district would still be required, by state law, to provide 180 days of school to students. Days will be added at the beginning or end of the school year.

Members of the local Jewish community filled the board room Tuesday night, urging the board to adopt the proposed new policy.

Rabbi Yossi Mintz of the Jewish Community Center noted that nearby communities Manhattan Beach and Santa Monica had already added the holidays to their school calendar. He said other surrounding communities likewise considering the holidays were looking closely at what occurred in Redondo Beach.

“So we ask the honorable members of the school board, who have dedicated your life to education and educating future generations, to make this decision for our community, for everyone here and for the entire South Bay looking at you tonight to make a decision that will affect our students,” Mintz said. “When a child misses school, the child loses.”

Parent Linda Hatakeyama said the dip in school attendance simply reflected the population demographic in the community. She said that the High Holy Days, like Christmas, need not be considered religious holiday by the school district but rather just times that students will be taking a break.

“There is no need to refer to a change in the school calendar as a religious holiday, but merely a change to reflect that our students will be absent, our schools will suffer financially, and both students and teachers are hurt academically,” she said.

Former Redondo Beach councilman Don Szerlip said that his three children have essentially been punished academically for observing their faith.

“I know my kids are not going to school on these days,” he said. “I know they are going to be in temple with me those days. It is my life and how I was brought up and am trying to instill this tradition in my children.”

Parent Michael Ude said he was opposed to any new religious holiday in schools. He said it could serve as a precedent for other religions and that if parents wanted to observe such holidays, they should pay schools for the lost day.

“Kids can’t afford another day off, nor can parents,” Ude said. “I work, my wife works, and if my kids are not in school, who is going to take care of them? On these days, most people work, and most go to school, so who is going to watch the children? So rightfully I think kids need to stay in school, especially in this economy.”

Szerlip said that adding holidays could indeed serve as a precedent if other religious communities had sufficient numbers to impact the schools financially.

“In fact, I believe it should, if the numbers make sense, if you’ve got as large a community coming forward that is 2.5 to 3 percent of your student body…” he said. “You should make allowance for that – that is what community is all about.”

Board members were all in favor of adding the holidays. But board member Carl Clark suggested it should be done in such a way that did not invoke religion. He said the board’s policies should uniformly do so.

“I would prefer we would instead delete Christmas,” Clark said.  “I would like to remove all references to religion from this policy…I believe we should have it sent back and have it reworded in some way that we can do this without mingling government and religion.”

Billinger cautioned that the board policy needed to establish holidays or such non-school days would be subject to collective bargaining agreements with labor groups. Other board members were sympathetic with Clark’s desire to keep church and state separate, but language could not be agreed upon that would establish the policy without direct reference to religious observance.

The new policy was adopted in a 3-1 vote, with Clark opposing. Board member Arlene Staich was not present.

Board president Todd Loewenstein acknowledged his own Jewish faith but said the policy change was about honoring the diversity of the community.

“For me, faith is a very personal thing, and I think it is for a lot of people here,” Loewenstein said. “I respect the fact that this county has separation of church and state.”

Board member Jane Diehl said the policy was about what is ultimately best for the students, since little was accomplished academically on days when many students are absent.

“This sort of change in the calendar will probably be best for the students,” she said.

Board member Drew Gamet said that every aspect of public education had been modernized except its calendar. He suggested the two month summer break should be rethought.

“Our calendar continues to be rooted in an agrarian society,” he said. “Now, I am pretty sure we are not having trouble bringing in the crops.” ER

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