RANDOLPH – Christopher Columbus has “legs,” as they say in the news business.
This affluent, and normally tranquil Morris County community, has exploded – metaphorically speaking – in the wake of last week’s bizarre board of education decision to strip holiday references from the school calendar.
In no particular order, the last few days have seen a rally against the move in a local diner, a critical statement by the mayor, the launch of a petition drive demanding the board and superintendent resign and – finally – a clarifying statement of sorts from the board.
All this goes back to the board’s decision in May to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day.
What was worse in the eyes of many critics was that the switch was made without prior notice on the board agenda. And it passed with no discussion.
Here is where some commentary is required.
There is controversy all over the nation about eliminating references to historical figures whose activities are seen differently through the lens of 21st Century values.
How could board members in an educated place like Randolph not know that?
Surely, someone should have said, “Time out, let’s talk about this next meeting.”:
School boards, however, prize unanimity and discourage public debate. And you see the result.
At last week’s colorful and sometimes angry meeting, the board had three logical choices.
It could have left the decision as is.
It could have changed the second Monday of October back to Columbus Day on the calendar.
It could have compromised a bit. Make the holiday something like Italian Heritage Day; thereby eliminating controversy about Columbus and recognizing contributions of Italian-Americans.
It chose a different path. As we know now, the board said the official calendar will simply refer to all holidays as days off, or school closed. It will not say why.
The board’s clarifying statement stressed that holidays themselves were not vanishing and that they will still be part of the district curriculum.
Well, it’s probably unlikely anyone thought the district would literally do away with Thanksgiving.
Still, the damage has been done.
The Sunday rally at the Randolph Diner featured local legislators, including state Sen. Anthony M. Bucco, who also addressed the board last week.
The mayor, Mark H. Forstenhausler, sent out a statement opposing the board’s action and saying he was “distraught” over the division in the community. He also made sure to point out that the municipal governing body is a distinct entity from the school board.
The petition drive has a few thousand signatures and seems to be picking up more by the minute. In the rhetoric you expect with an issue like this, the petition says school leaders represent “everything that is wrong in education today.”
Of course, labeling holidays on a calendar has nothing in itself to do with education.
No, this is not an education failure by the school board.
It’s a failure to understand the need for transparency and public discussion.