By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
MATTAPOISETT, Mass. — Despite the presence of several vocal residents who were adamantly opposed to removing Good Friday as a day off from the 2015 school calendar, the members of the joint Old Rochester Regional District School Committee and Massachusetts School Superintendency Union No. 55 voted to uphold its previous decision to treat Apr. 3, 2015 as a regular school day.
“The calendar stays as it was voted at our last meeting, with Good Friday being a day of school,” announced co-chairman Sharon Hartley after the vote was tallied and the motion to reconsider was narrowly defeated, five-to-four.
The ORR District School Committee — which sets policy for all of the public schools in the tri-towns of Mattapoisett, Marion and Rochester — had voted at its last meeting on March 27 to approve a 2014-2015 academic calendar that made Good Friday a normal school day, eradicating years of tradition that always dictated the Friday before Easter to be a day off.
In lieu of Good Friday — the day on which Catholics and Christians commemorate the death and crucifixion of Jesus Christ — the committee instead opted to make the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which had traditionally been a half-day, a full vacation day.
That didn’t sit well with many residents in the three towns, who felt that Good Friday is Sacred and should be observed as such.
A petition drive, spearheaded by Margaret McGee of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Rochester, was soon circulating in each of the towns after that last meeting, resulting in some 650 signatures asking the committee to reconsider its decision to hold classes on Good Friday.
“I know that everyone I spoke to who signed my petition, they’re keeping their kids home, so they’re going to find out eventually that people aren’t going to show up,” McGee told The Anchor shortly after the meeting Monday night. “It’s so upsetting to me, because they’re insinuating it’s all about education, but they can take any day of the year and make it a regular school day. Maybe they should have school on Patriots Day and teach the kids what it’s all about.”
During more than an hour of debate — which at times became emotional and a bit heated — between committee members and the residents present, the pros and cons of observing a decidedly religious holiday in a secular school system were raised.
Some, like Joseph Napoli of St. Rita’s Parish in Marion, supported McGee’s assertion that Good Friday should remain a day off.
Napoli, who himself served on the ORR School Committee back in the 1980s, said they tried to have classes on Good Friday once before.
“The community was up in arms and they let us know about it,” Napoli said. “More than two-thirds of the teachers didn’t show up, and a like number of students didn’t show, so education didn’t take place that day. We hired substitute teachers to babysit at a considerable amount of money. I don’t think we need to repeat that.”
But others, like Isabel Gomes McCann of Rochester, who identified herself as a Catholic familiar with canon law, said Good Friday is neither a “holy day of obligation” nor a “holy day of observance” in the Liturgical calendar.
“In canon law, Good Friday is pretty much treated like Ash Wednesday,” McCann said. “The only thing that is required of a Christian is abstinence, which is mostly to not eat meat as a source of penance, and to fast. And children under the age of 18 are excused from that. So it is not a day of obligation. And if we start behaving that way with regards to Good Friday, what happens to Ash Wednesday? What happens to all of Holy Week? What happens to all the other days that by canon law are not obligatory? I feel as a school committee, this needs to be about the school calendar.”
Christine Marcoloni, a representative on the school committee from Marion, wanted to know if any data had been gathered about the potential absentee rate for faculty and students since they voted to have school on Good Friday back in March.
“I’m just wondering if we’ve had any feedback that’s new from the (school) principals?” Marcoloni asked. “As an educator, that’s my primary concern. I’m concerned about coverage for our building. I know how difficult it is to get quality substitutes in our building in the springtime under normal circumstances.”
According to ORR School Superintendent Doug White, he had spoken with the presidents of the various teachers’ unions and “they felt that those who wanted to take the day off as a personal day for religious reasons would do that and they didn’t see this as necessarily impacting the overall education of the schools,” he said.
But Kevin Brogioli, principal of ORR Junior High School, and Mike Devoll, principal of ORR High School, said through informal polls they estimated that about 25 percent of the faculty would not work on Good Friday and opt to take it as a personal day.
“We just did an anonymous poll, it wasn’t something they had to identify themselves for,” Devoll said.
Shaun Walsh of Marion dismissed this hypothetical data in favor of hard numbers that he collected from the superintendent’s office. Although he couldn’t get information about the 1980s-era Good Friday debacle, he did offer some more recent figures.
“The superintendent’s office is required by law to only keep data for seven years, so I asked if they could dig up data for the last five years,” Walsh said. “The average absentee rate across the district (for the last five years) was 4.6 percent. The average absentee rate for the day before Thanksgiving is over double that — it’s 9.6 percent. And this past year is was closer to 18 percent, so we had a lot of kids out that day.”
Walsh also contacted the school superintendent in nearby Bourne, which has been treating Good Friday as a regular school day “for 12 to 13 years now,” he said.
“He told me that one single teacher and two parent-professionals requested Good Friday off and they were given it as a personal day off,” Walsh said. “So I would put more stock in what has been the actual experience of other school districts in terms of staff absenteeism, than an informal survey of staff members here, because I don’t think 25 percent of our staff is going to do that to our students — I really don’t.”
If there’s strength in numbers, countered Steve Burke of Rochester, then the school committee should be heeding the large contingent of residents present at the meeting and the 650 others who signed the petition being presented to them.
“Data talks,” Burke said. “If you have 650 signatures here, you have a critical mass — you have a pretty good sample size. That cannot be discounted. You’re discounting the people in this room if you do that. I appreciate your analytical rigor, but I too am an analyst. You have two principals here who took a poll. I think you need to go back to the drawing board, grab your principals and get some more data before you make this decision. I don’t care what decision you make, but make it based on valid data.”
Noting that there are roughly 15,000 residents in the three towns, school committee co-chairman Sharon Hartley said the 650 signatures represent “only about five percent of that 15,000.”
“And we have no way of knowing if the people on that list are actually citizens of the three towns, or if they have children here, we just don’t know,” she added.
“The (signatures) are real, but they never even looked at them,” McGee said. “I had everyone print their name and address and sign it. I wouldn’t bring something to them that was dishonest — that’s not how I am. But they sort of dismissed (the petition).”
In the end, it seemed like there might be light at the end of the tunnel when school committee member James Higgins of Mattapoisett and superintendent Doug White suggested the committee needed to gather more accurate data about faculty and student absentee rates before making a final decision.
“I don’t think we should necessarily change traditions for our community,” Higgins said. “All data aside, there was no driving factor to change the calendar to remove Good Friday other than some people’s opinions that we shouldn’t observe religious holidays. My personal opinion is that we traditionally had Good Friday off, and I’m in support of voting to keep it that way.”
“The night we voted on that calendar, that calendar never got back to the people that we talked about — the school councils, the faculty, and others who have a voice in our calendars,” White added. “We decided that was going to be the calendar moving forward and I’ve since heard from many individuals about looking at the data to make good decisions. I’m not sure you have the quality of data to make the kind of decision that I’d want you to make as a school committee. I cannot sit here and honestly tell you what that day is going to look like; I can’t tell you I know we’re going to have a teacher in every classroom and I know we’re going to have students here (on Good Friday).”
Although she was disappointed the vote didn’t go her way, McGee doesn’t have any regrets about speaking out.
“I was talking to my son and he said: ‘At least one thing you did was you exposed to the whole community how you felt and you gave them the opportunity to speak their minds,’” she said.
“I think the Holy Spirit inspired me to do this,” McGee added. “Sometimes you have to be the hands or feet or voice of Christ. I don’t understand how people can look at this as an ordinary day — they can pick any day and they pick this one for their education?”