HARVARD -- The School Committee faced another heated discussion about the school calendar on Monday night as they decided whether to host a half-day of school on Christmas Eve this year.
The decision to adopt a school calendar without religious holidays, originally enacted by the committee in 2010, is meeting controversy as students are scheduled to have a half-day on Wednesday, Dec. 24.
Emma Ritter, a junior at Bromfield School, came before the committee with an impassioned plea to intervene in the amount of work she is given on her holidays.
Holding back tears, Ritter explained that she has loads of homework to make up when she leaves school for Jewish holidays. On Christmas Eve, students will likely be watching movies, she said. But on the days she is gone, they are having a lesson that is harder to make up than a test.
"I don't care whatever you do with the Christmas holiday, and I don't care whatever happens with the Jewish holiday," she said. "I just think something needs to be said to the teachers about giving work."
Committee member Kirsten Wright said the issue is more than about one day. She said she is trying to understand what it is like in someone else's shoes.
"I'm a Christian, I celebrate Christmas, and it feels sort of like, 'Wow, this is inconvenient,'" she said. "And I understand that, but what about the other people that don't have that same inconvenience?"
"I'm just hoping that this ultimately is something that we can change," she added. "That we, as a committee, might think about what the bigger message is and maybe we could do something a little differently in our calendar in the future, if this is something that we do."
Keith Cheveralls explained that he cast the deciding vote in favor of the calendar when he was on the committee in 2010, and argued that it was not a discussion about religious holidays.
"Though I will not be at this table," he said, "I will never abandon my principle behind which I made that decision and cast that vote about trying to bring a sense of evenness and equality to everyone in this town."
Harvard resident Kate Squire asked the committee to consider the availability of teachers on that day. She had heard that there are about 30 substitute teachers available in the district, she said.
"I'm just hoping that the board will consider the availability. With a pool of 30 people, how many people might be available that day," she said.
Chair SusanMary Redinger asked Superintendent Joseph Connelly to determine the feasibility of holding school on that day -- how he might plan for a safe and constructive day -- and then bring that back to the committee.
Connelly said he is getting a clear message that the half-day has a potential of being a high absentee date for both staff and students.
In lighter news, the committee unanimously agreed to use excess money in special-education costs to pay for all six of its warrant articles.
Giving the same presentation that he gave the Finance Committee last week, Connelly explained that the school district came across an unanticipated "windfall of savings" just as the budget was finalized.
Case Collaborative, which offers special-education programs to certain school districts, adopted a change in its billing methodology that ultimately benefits Harvard, Connelly explained. This leaves the committee with an extra $336,632 in one-time funds.
Even if that's applied to the six warrant articles, which total $269,600, the schools will still have about $67,000 to apply to special-education costs. The warrant articles include sanding and painting steel at the high school, repairing the elementary school parking lot and more.
After hearing from students who attended a service learning trip to Philadelphia last year, the committee approved teacher Patricia Nilan's request to take about 10 high school students on another trip to New York City. The $550 trip will also feature service projects.
Committee and community members honored Cheveralls, who was attending his last meeting as a School Committee member after six years.
"Our schools are the crown jewel of our town, and they're better off for Keith's service," said committee member Robert Sullebarger.
Harvard Cable TV Chairman Bill Johnson presented Cheveralls with a permanent key to the new TV studio for his work and dedication on the project. He also gave Cheveralls a "plaque" of his own, made of a tile with a picture of Cheveralls working in the studio.
After accepting more gifts from the committee and a card from children at Hildreth Elementary, Cheveralls thanked everyone for the recognition.
"I think much has been done; there is clearly much left to be done," he said of the committee. "I truly have always tried to make this about the kids."
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