CCHS 2017-2018 calendar changed, again

by Karina Coombs

Following months of discussion about closing Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS) next year for two religious holidays—and after voting on January 24 to do just that—the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC) reversed its position at its May 1 meeting, voting to keep CCHS open on Rosh Hashanah and Good Friday in the 2017-18 academic year. 

The Carlisle School does not observe the religious holidays.

While the RSC had followed the recommendation of the 2015 Calendar Advisory Committee for the 2016-17 calendar and voted to keep school open on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Good Friday, calls grew for the religious observance days to return to the school calendar for 2017-18. Following hours of impassioned public comment on both sides of the issue during the January 24 meeting, the RSC had voted to close CCHS on September 21 and March 30. 

First Amendment issues raised

The debate continued at the March 24 meeting, which began with RSC Chair Bill Fink explaining that it was the opinion of the district’s legal counsel, Peter Ebb, that the RSC re-vote the calendar because of First Amendment issues. Ebb was concerned after having watched a recording of the meeting that the basis for the vote seemed to have been based at least partly on religious observances. In a letter to the committees, he explained that the law required a purely secular reason for school closures. 

Absenteeism as a reason to close schools

Student and faculty absenteeism was the focus of much of the conversation preceding the vote on May 1. RSC member Heather Bout noted that while the absenteeism rates on the holidays under discussion were above average, she did not feel they were high enough to justify closing schools for a secular purpose. RSC member Johanna Boynton agreed, adding that after looking at data she found much higher rates of absenteeism on days where there was no holiday. Boynton added that after watching the recording of the January 24 meeting, she noted that a focus of discussion had been the religious aspects of closing school and she expressed concern that this left the district vulnerable to legal challenges. 

RSC member Mary Storrs explained that her thoughts had not changed since her original vote against closing the schools, adding that recognizing some religious holidays, but not others, was not being inclusive. Storrs also noted that May 1 marked the seventh meeting on the topic, and said that each seemed to be more contentious than the last. She did agree with other committee members, however, on the topic of district accommodation for student absences for religious observation. Storrs asked for better implementation so that students did not miss out on instruction, enrichment or special events while not at school, also an area of concern for RSC members Wally Johnston, Bob Grom and Dan Conti.

Fink asked Director of Human Resources Kelly McCausland what rate of absenteeism would be the tipping point, where the cost of providing substitute teachers and a loss of instruction for students would suggest that a closure was in order. McCausland replied that since some students and teachers would always be in school, and with a pool of substitute school employees, school would not be cancelled. 

Fink agreed with Boynton’s analysis that while the holidays did have above average rates of absenteeism, there were other days that were higher. He also agreed with Storrs and said that CCHS needs to recognize diversity and encourage inclusivity, and that recognizing a few religions over others is counter to this. Fink referenced a letter from the Concord-Carlisle Teachers Association in support of keeping school open, as well as the recommendation of the Calendar Advisory Committee, noting that he did not see bias in their findings, as had been asserted by some members of the community. 

CCHS calendar is changed

Storrs made a motion to edit the calendar approved on January 24 to remove the two existing holiday closures on September 21 and March 30 and to move a professional day to January 16. Fink, Storrs, Boynton and Bout voted in favor of removing the holidays while Johnston, Grom and Conti opposed. Barring snow days, the last day of school for CCHS will now be June 12, 2018.

Asked their position on the recognition of Yom Kippur on the school calendar going forward – which falls on a Saturday next year so was not included – Bout explained that the school calendars were discussed and voted on annually and the topic would need to be raised for the 2018-19 academic year.

Concord grades K-8 to differ

Meeting jointly with the RSC on May 1, the Concord School Committee voted 3-2 to close school for grades K-8 on Rosh Hashanah and Good Friday, creating a split calendar for Concord’s public schools.

Campus Advisory Committee

In other business, Grom presented a second draft of the RSC charge for the CCHS Campus Advisory Committee, with committee members providing feedback that will be incorporated for the next meeting. One of the tasks for the advisory committee will be presenting land use options for the site of the former landfill. Both Concord and Carlisle Town Meetings voted to approve spending of $1.2 million to cap the area. 

An advisory committee membership term of two years is proposed. The committee will include 14 members, made up of one Concord and one Carlisle RSC member, the CCHS Principal, Athletic Director and a CCHS teacher and student, the Deputy Superintendent, Concord’s Town Manager, Concord School Department Facilities Manager and five community members, including representation from Carlisle. Some officials may appoint a designee. The RSC proposed monthly meetings and advisory committee reports to the RSC quarterly, with recommendations due tentatively in April 2018.  ∆