Baltimore County school board expected to vote on controversial academic calendar Tuesday

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore County school board is scheduled to decide Tuesday whether to keep schools open on two of the most important holy days in the Jewish calendar. If board members decide to do so, it would be the first time in about two decades that students would be required to attend school on those days.

An advisory committee has presented the board with two options for the 2018-19 school year. The committee has recommended the board choose the alternative that keeps schools open on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, which next year begins at sundown Sept. 9, and Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown Sept. 18.

School board members say they don’t know how the vote will go. Board President Edward J. Gilliss said he has not polled fellow members.

School board member David Uhlfelder supports keeping schools closed on the Jewish holidays, as has been the practice since the mid-1990s.

“The truth of the matter is it is not a religious issue,” he said. “It is a a question of economics.”

He estimates it will cost the school system between $300,000 and $500,000 to pay for the substitute teachers that would be needed to fill in for Jewish teachers who took the days off.

“How much is it worth to you to keep them open?” he asked. “Are you willing to spend the money?

“If you don’t care about the $400,000, then you keep the schools open. If you do, then you close the schools.”

School districts across Maryland are developing calendars that begin after Labor Day and end by June 15 — requirements set last year by Gov. Larry Hogan.

In announcing his executive order, Hogan said stretching out the summer break would give families more time together, generate more revenue for the state’s tourism industry and help keep students in the Baltimore region out of sweltering classrooms that lack air conditioning.

Some parents welcomed the governor’s order; others panned it. The requirements are squeezing the academic calendar, leaving religious holidays to compete with snow days, teacher planning days, spring and fall breaks and other scheduling demands.

The Supreme Court has ruled that schools cannot close for religious reasons, but can close on religious holidays if widespread absences would make it difficult to operate efficiently.

State law requires schools to be open for a certain number of days and hours each year. Because Baltimore County’s school days are shorter than other districts’, the district must be open for more days — and has had more difficulty in meeting the governor’s requirements.

If the Baltimore County school board decides to close school on the Jewish holidays, spring break would run from Good Friday through Easter Monday. If the board votes to keep schools open on the Jewish holidays, a day would be added to spring break: Students would get the Thursday before Good Friday off.

Keeping schools open on the two Jewish holidays has drawn significant opposition. The Baltimore County PTA board of directors wants schools to close on the two days for safety reasons. PTA president Jayne Lee said the PTA estimates the school system would need about 1,400 substitute teachers on the holidays.

“We are not concerned about the students who are out,” she said. “We are concerned about having enough trained people in the building. We worry about behavior issues.”

With many teachers out, she said, classes are likely to be combined, leaving substitutes with large classes to control.

Abby Beytin, president of the teachers union, said that the union has not taken a position on the calendar.

“But we know how difficult it had been in the past to hire enough substitutes for those days,” she said. “We worry about safety issues if the school system remains open.”

The Baltimore Jewish Council opposes keeping schools open on the holy days.

A spokeswoman for Hogan said the county can adopt a calendar that does not require children to be in school during the High Holy Days.

“It is outrageous that Baltimore County officials are threatening Jewish holidays when they can find time to close schools for a teacher union convention on the beaches of Ocean City,” spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said. “Most jurisdictions have managed to adopt a commonsense calendar that prioritizes what students and families want, and Baltimore County could easily do the same.”

Gilliss, the board chair, said the board has had a “handshake agreement of long standing” to close one day in October so teachers may attend the conference.

“The board has had this as a day for teachers across the state to gather for a state conference,” he said.

Arundel County’s school board approved a calendar this week that keeps schools open on Rosh Hashanah but closes schools on Yom Kippur.

Harford County’s proposed calendar would close for both the Jewish holidays. The board will vote on that calendar in December. Baltimore has never closed schools on the Jewish holy days.

In Howard County, both options under consideration keep schools closed on the two holidays.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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