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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 27, 2010

Calendar conundrum
GCSD considers taking religion out of its holidays

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — What religious holidays, if any, should the school district include on the calendars it sends to students’ homes?

The school board will be answering that question at its next meeting, on June 8.

Board members were divided Tuesday night and had a spirited debate on the issue.

The subject was raised by Amy Zurlo, the district’s public information officer, who said that, in the eight years she’s been at her job, the school calendar has gotten “more and more crowded.”

The school calendar was “designed to be academic,” said Zurlo, and there are “tons of events and a limited amount of space.”

Currently, Zurlo told The Enterprise, the school calendar lists Christian, Jewish, and Islamic holidays as well has “Hallmark holidays” like Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day.

She surveyed school calendars across the state and found that many districts list no holidays at all. She also said that there are 47 active religious denominations in Albany County and proposed to the board a model of listing just federal holidays.

The United States Office of Personnel Management lists 10 federal holidays for 2010: New Year’s Day, the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo favored including a page in the calendar that listed different religions with a brief description of their holidays. A sample of such a list from the Williamsville Central School District in western New York was provided to the board members by Zurlo, although she was not advocating that format.

President Richard Weisz agreed with Fraterrigo, saying it was good to include more information on the district’s diversity. “Our calendar is an important part of how we reach our population,” he said. Weisz suggested the policy committee consider the matter.

Board member Colleen O’Connell said it was dangerous for a public school system to decide which religious holidays to include in its calendar. She said people could personalize their calendars at home by writing in their own important dates.

She also said it wasn’t a policy issue but a matter for board discussion.

Board member Judy Slack spoke of the “danger of offending” someone whose faith is left out and said “a smarter move” is just not to list religious holidays.

Board Vice President Catherine Barber also said she didn’t want to “unintentionally offend someone” by leaving out a holiday; the only religious holidays that should be included, she said, are the ones that result in a day off from school.

“Why would we do that?” asked Weisz.

O’Connell replied that it could be Good Friday or Rosh Hashanah, naming Christian and Jewish holidays that are days off from school.

Weisz responded that, if the calendar is to be clear of religion, it should be entirely clear of it, but he advocated including it all.

Fraterrigo said that, if someone called the school to complain because their religion had been left out of the page listing religions in the community, that faith could be added the next year. “The more all-inclusive we are, the better,” she said.

“We are becoming more diverse,” said board member Julie Cuneo about Guilderland. “It’s nice to see your culture accepted and acknowledged.”

Superintendent John McGuire noted he had just attended a dinner for students studying English as a second language (ESL). “We do value and celebrate diversity,” he said of the district. But he went on to state that the district had just scaled back 56 positions in next year’s budget and urged the board to be cautious about how many resources it would devote to the school calendar.

It was noted that the post for Zurlo’s assistant is cut for next year and the cost of printing more pages was also mentioned.

Zurlo said yesterday that the current district calendar is 28 pages and one is mailed to each family with students in the district for a total of 4,000 to 4,100. Another thousand are printed for distribution to local libraries or for people who request them, she said. Costs are hard to pin down since the pnting is done in-house, Zurlo said,, but the paper costs $1,000 for 5,000 calendars and the postage for mailing the calendars and other information to district families in August is about $500.

Zurlo told the board that she would have to figure out what religions were appropriate to list for the district. Fraterrigo replied that could be easily done by asking the ESL teachers. She said they would have “a very good handle on kids they serve.”

“Deciding which religion is a slippery slope…This is not a judgment we should be making,” said O’Connell. She said that choosing what religions to include is “fraught with peril.”

She called for the board to vote on the matter but her motion, seconded by Barber, fell short of the six votes need to proceed on the same night a topic is introduced to the board.

Cuneo then addressed O’Connell, who is a lawyer, about her comments on the dangers involved. “When you’re an attorney, you can think that way, but there’s a human side, too,” she said.

“Maybe when the school district is sued for not including someone’s religion, you’d be glad to have a lawyer on the board,’ responded O’Connell.

Board member Denise Eisele said that Wiccans weren’t on the Williamsville list of religious faiths. “There’s a very large group of Wiccans locally,” she said. “I’m not being facetious.” She also said that atheists weren’t on the list.

“We’re not in the business of asking people what their faith is,” Eisele concluded. “We’re in the business of educating children.”

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