METUCHEN – Members of the Metuchen Board of Education “agreed to disagree” on the proposed 2022-23 school calendar.
Before the board voted 5-3 to ultimately approve next year’s school calendar at a board meeting on Feb. 22, members had a spirited discussion on whether they were for or against the changes to the calendar.
Board member Michele Cook, who chairs the Policy Committee overseeing the calendar, said the committee reviewed eight versions of the calendar.
The final version the committee unanimously voted for “maximizes learning for the 2022-23 school year,” she said.
“The entire process lasted three months, with extensive discussions conducted throughout,” she said, noting she looked at 25 different school calendars including those in Edison and Woodbridge. “We spent time discussing main goals and responsibilities of the board in setting the calendar, which included many ideas and possibilities such as the diversity of our town, how to balance, subtracting or adding more holidays to the calendar, educational disruptions, scheduling and facility challenges that we face in deciding, which days we can or cannot be in the buildings.”
One of the major changes to next school year’s calendar is eliminating the “staccato” schedule during the first week of November of having a half day on a Monday, off on Tuesday due to Election Day, half day on Wednesday, and off Thursday and Friday due to teacher/staff conferences.
“A day off, a day on, and a day off is very disruptive to education,” Cook said. “I know everyone thinks we do it just so that folks can go to Disney … that’s not the reason … it was done to level out educational time.
“Having that interruptive week is more disruptive and the calendar we went back and forth on for another six tries was balancing various days, while not extending the school year to the point we were here to almost July without air conditioning.”
Cook said the proposed calendar provides no less than a four-day school week anytime from the start of school until the first week of November.
Members of the public including Rabbi Eric Rosin of Neve Shalom expressed concerns of making the second day of Rosh Hoshanah, Sept. 27, a school day, which in the past was a day off.
Members of the Jewish faith said the second day is considered the holiest of Judaism.
“I spoke to Cantor [Emily] Simkin from Temple Emanu-El [in Edison] and we wanted to let you know we are all in agreement on this,” Rosin said. “We know Metuchen is very concerned about [this] … we know there are processes that we can go through to make sure everyone feels like they are part of decisions like this.”
Board President Brian Glassberg said the calendar has gone through the same process over the years. It is developed and discussed in the school district and policy committees.
“Sometimes there is back and forth between the two [committees] and then if it gets voted out of the Policy Committee, which is made up of four members, then the calendar goes to the entire board for consideration,” he said, noting calendars change year after year and even within the year for various reasons.
Board member Eric Suss said he believed the proposed calendar catered to a few people including those “who can afford a Disney trip.”
“Call me crazy, I believe a half day in November is worth two days in June when everyone’s checked out and it’s way too hot [similar to] September,” he said.
Suss added if the district is closed on Election Day, the district should also close on Primary Day for consistency. He questioned the change to make Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Columbus Day, an off day.
“The kids have been in school for less than a month and we’re breaking their rhythm,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time we had this day off.”
Suss said the district needs more class time. He added he was concerned with how the proposed calendar was presented to the community with a short time to review the calendar.
“We represent the people of this town, not any other group,” he said “Feedback from others is important. But ultimately, the people’s feedback should be weighed most heavily. We shouldn’t be afraid to hear what they have to say.”
Board member Hazel-Ann Johnson-Marcus, who is a member of the Policy Committee, said during the process, they considered students who have to take religious holidays consistently.
Board member Jonathan Lifton said the calendar is a difficult balancing act.
“Since I have been in the district, I’ve always thought the November week is one of the most ridiculous weeks I have ever seen,” he said. “I think that while this is a large change, I understand there are some members of the community that are unhappy about it.”
He said those who wish to take the religious holiday for Rosh Hashanah can take the day as an excused absence.
“It’s an educational argument, this is a public school,” Lifton said, adding the board is making “a statement about the education of the children, not about religious liberty or persecution.”
Lifton noted four board members, including himself, are Jewish and Board member Dan Benderly is a member of the Policy Committee.
Cook said she hears the members of the public and encourages continued public input.
“We want the calendar to be an open discussion point at all of our policy committee meetings all year,” she said. “We’re not trying to get the decision made quickly with one or two meetings because it is far more complicated than it seems. We need to take into account various stakeholders.”