AUGUSTA — Religious holidays of multiple faiths will not get their spot on the school calendar after all.

The Augusta school board, despite extensive public testimony from local residents in favor and none in opposition, voted 5-2 to reject a new policy that would have added holidays for six religions to the school calendar in an effort to keep educators aware of them as they planned special events.

Advocates for the rejected policy said it would have encouraged teachers and school administrators to try to accommodate students of all faiths by avoiding, when possible, conflicts of having special events at school on the same days when students might not be in school because they are observing their religious holidays. They said the board’s rejection was disappointing.

“This was not a request for special rights or special accommodations but merely a request for fundamental fairness,” Cindy Bernstein, who is part of a Jewish family, with her husband Gregg and their three boys who attend Augusta schools, said before the board vote. “The calendar and schedules of schools are arranged to accommodate Christian holidays, and that’s perfectly fine. This policy would simply allow and encourage the same kind of accommodation for children who belong to different religions.

“In a growing diverse society, there needs to be a recognition that all children should benefit from the same awareness and accommodations,” she added. “Engaging and approving this policy will go a long way in demonstrating to kids and their parents, of all faiths, that they are welcome.”

Religious holidays for Christians, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus were to be included in calendars distributed to parents, teachers and other school staff members, had the board voted in favor of the policy.

School board members Jason Bersani and Tom Connors, two of the five “no” votes, criticized the policy for specifically listing six religions that would have their holidays listed on the school calendar, noting there are as many as 200 religions.

Board member Staci Fortunato, chairwoman of the policy committee, which voted 3-0 to send the proposal to the full board for consideration, said those religions were listed specifically because those are the most prevalent religions in the city’s schools. She noted another provision of the policy states school officials also would consider students absences as excused for the observation of religious beliefs not included in the list of six religions specified.

Fortunato and Jennifer Dumond were the two votes for the policy.

School board members cited various other reasons for rejecting the policy — including, they said, that teachers and school administrators already work hard to accommodate students of all faiths.

“After much observation, many words and reading surveys online, I know the school district is doing a good job of preserving the core belief we have, of inclusion,” said Christopher Clarke, a board member and policy committee member. “I see it at the high school, at the middle school. I see the smiles on the faces as I enter school. We don’t penalize students for missing practice or school (for a religious observation). We have a school district that is already doing what needs to be done, that goes above and beyond what most other school districts are doing.”

Another reason given for rejecting it was that the policy was impractical and could lead to disappointment. Superintendent James Anastasio and Kim Silsby, principal of Cony High School and Cony Middle School, said the school calendar is already full of scheduled events, many of which are beyond the control of local officials, that it often would be difficult or impossible to reschedule them to accommodate all students. Anastasio, for example, said sporting events between schools are scheduled by the Maine Principals’ Association, so the school district does not have the ability to reschedule games to avoid religious holidays.

No one who spoke at Wednesday night’s meeting expressed opposition to the policy. Board members said they did get some opposing comments through an online survey.

Followers of the various religions advocating for the policy said it would help lessen the chances students would have to choose between observing religious holidays with their families and attending school field trips or events. They also said it would make the school district more welcoming and inclusive.

At the interfaith group’s urging, the Maranacook area’s Regional School Unit 38, Winthrop schools and Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2 passed similar policies earlier this year.

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