RANDOLPH – “It’s a school calendar, people.”
That was the comment of one speaker at a rowdy school board meeting Monday night centering on a firestorm that began in mid-May when the board changed the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day on its calendar.
The point seemed obvious.
A name on a calendar has nothing to do with curriculum, testing or what is actually being taught in school.
As obvious as that point was, it was also a point that was lost in the frenzy of the moment.
And a frenzy it was.
The auditorium in the town’s middle school was jammed with at least 400 people, some of whom waved Italian flags and signs supporting Columbus.
The crowd booed the board when the meeting opened, loudly recited the Pledge of Allegiance and when it ended, some began chanting, “USA, USA.”
In some remarkable, if not illogical, connection, how a school district labels days off on a calendar has become a local epicenter in the nation’s cultural war.
The board did mess up. First by eliminating Columbus Day from the calendar in May without prior notice and later, by bizarrely sanitizing the calendar of all holidays.
Still, any fair-minded person in the meeting room Monday night should have been disgusted by the unruly and juvenile behavior by many in the crowd who shouted and booed every time a board member said something they didn’t like. Not exactly the actions you’d expect in an educated community like Randolph.
One board member, Jeanne Stifelman, blamed, partially at least, right wing media such as Fox News, for stirring up its political base.
That just inflamed the crowd even more and prompted a chant, “Get her out, get her out.”
Stifelman didn’t back down; motioning with her hands to “bring it on.
Board President Tammy MacKay quickly called a recess and district security officers warned the crowd to show respect for the board or be kicked out.
Clearly, the audience was in a nasty mood.
Prior to the recess and again after it, board members said that since the issue began district officials have received a barrage of nasty and vile messages via Facebook and email.
Stifleman observed that a few more inflammatory news stories could lead to violence.
That comment drew catcalls and boos.
As we said, part of this was the board’s making.
After the board’s June 10 move to strike all holidays from its calendar – opting to list them only as days off. – the school board suddenly found itself in the middle of an unprecedented maelstrom.
So when the board convened a special meeting at 5:30 p.m, a hundred or so people were already lined up to get inside. There really was no debate about what was going to happen.
The agenda was clear – the board planned to adopt a resolution restoring the calendar to what it was two months ago. Columbus Day and all other holidays would be listed.
But that didn’t prevent people from having their say.
Speakers said that Columbus Day does not only honor the explorer, but Italian heritage itself. And to do otherwise is an affront to Italian-Americans.
Similar to the earlier meeting in June, critics used the calendar issue as a jumping off point to lambaste all that they see is wrong with the public school system.
Critical race theory was mentioned more than once, as was sex education and even Hillary Clinton’s book of years ago, “It Takes a Village.”
The crowd booed and gasped in horror at the thought some students were reading Clinton’s book.
As some board members eventually pointed out, none of this had anything to do with Columbus Day or the calendar.
But it has a lot to do with a conservative backlash against anything and everything associated with the school district that could be deemed “progressive.”
Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican candidate for governor, has weighed in, releasing a short video on the issue last week that condemned the school board. Chris Christie, who just about never comments on issues in his home county, criticized the board as well. For the uninitiated, Christie lives in Mendham Township, which borders Randolph.
A number of local politicians, including state Sen. Anthony M. Bucco, appeared in person. As did Assemblyman Brian Bergen and County Commissioners Tom Mastrangelo and Tayfun Selen.
Bucco said that in an attempt to foster diversity, the board has divided the town.
Few could argue with that.
A small number of speakers who criticized Columbus were booed.
Curiously, Randolph is not, necessarily, a conservative town. Voters here supported Joe Biden last fall.
So when some board members suggested the “vocal minority” at the meeting was not emblematic of the town as a whole, they may have had a point.
In the end, the board voted as advertised to revert the school calendar to what it was two months ago. So, hello Columbus Day.
It also agreed to consider further adjustments to the calendar, like making Veterans’ Day a school holiday.
This may have seemed like a satisfactory way to end an issue, which, as we said, has nothing to do with education.
But many in the crowd didn’t seem satisfied.
A petition is calling on the entire board to resign; a point many speakers reiterated.
President MacKay actually seemed a bit exasperated that critics were calling for mass resignations because of a calendar dispute.
“Really?” she asked at one point.
“Yes,” said some in the crowd.