Montgomery County Public Schools Defends Decision on School Calendar

Montgomery County Public Schools Defends Decision on School Calendar

Officials cite state law in declining to add Muslim holiday and removal of all religious references

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Superintendent Joshua Starr said Thursday he supports the board's decision to remove references to religious holidays from next year's school calendar.

via MCPS

Montgomery County Public Schools officials on Thursday stood by their decision to strike all references to religious holidays from next year’s school calendar, instead of adding a Muslim holiday to the list. That decision continues to fuel a firestorm of criticism covered by local and national media.

As part of its annual review of the school system schedule, the Board of Education voted 7 to 1 Tuesday to change the way holidays are listed in the school calendar for 2015-2016. The decision means the calendar will no longer mention Easter, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but schools will still be closed on those days. Despite lobbying from members of the Muslim community, the board declined to add Eid al-Adha, also called the Feast of the Sacrifice, which next year falls on the same day as the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, already a scheduled day off.

The decision initially sparked confusion, leading some people to contact MCPS officials and lawmakers to ask if the school system had eliminated days off for Christmas and Easter, rather than listing them in a different way.

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr said Thursday that the school system had received many emails and other messages about the board’s decision, and that many were “vitriolic and racist and anti-Muslim.”

Starr downplayed the public criticism, saying that he supports the school board, which made a “very straightforward decision.”

School board President Phil Kauffman and Vice President Patricia O’Neill, cognizant of the firestorm, on Thursday posted a lengthy explanation of the board’s decision on the school system’s website.

“We made this change to emphasize that we cannot—under state or federal law—close schools for a religious reason. Any decision to close schools on a particular day must be made for a secular, operational reason, such as high absenteeism of students and/or staff,” they wrote.

But a representative of the Muslim community says he and other Muslims will press for the board to change its mind.

Saqib Ali, a former Democratic delegate to the Maryland legislature who is working with fellow Muslims to try to get a Muslim school holiday, said there should be clear standards for what’s included on the school system calendar to make it legally defensible. The district also should provide details of the absentee data they are using to justify closing on some holidays but not on others, he said.

If closures are based primarily on the expectation of heavy absenteeism, then the district should close schools the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he said. School officials need to explain the tipping point at which there are so many absences that it is wiser to give everyone a day off than try to hold classes, he said.

Ali is a member of the school system’s calendar committee, which he said meets once a year to give input to the school system.

No one knows precisely how many MCPS students or staff are Muslim; nor is there a count of Christians and Jews. And Ali noted that the school system is relying on data that is about 40 years old to gauge the need to close on Jewish holidays, and no data is available about the numbers students and staff absent on Muslim holidays.

Ali, who has two daughters in the school system, said he has tried to meet with Starr over the past few years to see if a compromise could be reached, but so far has not been able to get on Starr’s calendar.

“Why would they not talk with us or consult with us?” he asked.

Brian Edwards, school system spokesman, said Friday that Ali "has had numerous conversations with board members and testified several times so there has been plenty of communication with him." 

This is not the first time the Muslim community has brought its concerns to the school board. In 2012, the board said it couldn’t close schools for religious reasons and asked that the district monitor attendance of staff and students on future Muslim holidays to see if there is enough absenteeism to justify a closing. School board member Christopher Barclay noted Tuesday that the board hadn’t received a study of that issue.

Montgomery is actually late to the table on the secular labeling of school holidays. Many school systems, including Fairfax County and the District of Columbia, have for several years listed  holidays as days off without religious references.

U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who represents a portion of Montgomery County, has heard from constituents who are angry about the board’s decision.  On Thursday, he urged the school system to revisit the decision.

“I’d like to see Montgomery County Public Schools continue to recognize religious holidays on the calendar, including those important to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities. Eid al-Adha is a holy day for my many Muslim constituents and I believe it should be a school holiday,” he said in a written statement.  U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who also represents Montgomery County, did not respond to a request for comment.

There were also critics closer to home. Michael Durso, former principal of Springbrook High School, and the lone board member who favored adding Eid al-Adha to the calendar, said the board’s decision had backfired.

“I think we probably have alienated everybody,” he said Thursday.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) also said he would back the Muslim community’s position if the decision were up to him. County Council member George Leventhal (D-At large) criticized the decision, calling it disappointing.

The debate, closely followed by local media as it unfolded throughout the day Tuesday, garnered extensive coverage in national media, including CNN, ABC, Vox.com and several out- of-state newspapers. The Washington Post editorial board called the move a “clumsy approach that inflamed the issues.” Vox.com also said the school system had handled the move “clumsily.”

Nationally, some school systems already give time off for Muslim holidays, including Dearborn, Mich., and several districts in New Jersey with large Muslim populations. New York City Mayor-elect Bill DiBlasio has promised to consider adding Muslim holidays to the school calendar.

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