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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Public schools in Lewiston have had a policy about religious holidays since 2002, with revisions made to it in 2009.

Yarmouth High School recently adopted a practice, sought by its student civil rights team, that encourages teachers to avoid scheduling major assignments on religious holidays.

Leaders of the effort to add the policy in all four central Maine school systems expressed disappointment after Wednesday night’s vote in Augusta.

Rabbi Erica Asch, of Temple Beth El-Augusta, said if there was no need for such a policy, then the as many as 70 people who have come to meetings to speak in favor of it over the last few months wouldn’t have advocated for it. She said Wednesday’s vote prompts her to question whether the school board has the same commitment to inclusiveness and welcoming people of all faiths for which Augusta is otherwise known. She said she wasn’t sure what, if any, the interfaith group’s next steps would be on the issue.

“I’d like to challenge the notion that everything in Augusta schools is perfect,” Asch said after the vote. “If there was no need for this policy, we wouldn’t be here.”

The proposed policy would have specified that missing a school day to celebrate a religious holiday would be considered an excused absence, although that provision was already in existing school policies in Augusta and in federal law. The policy states that while planning school events, administrators and teachers shall take religious holidays into consideration “to the best of their abilities.”

The idea behind it, proponents said, is to include the holidays for multiple, including minority, faiths on the school calendar so teachers and school officials can try to avoid scheduling events such as field trips and step-up days on those days.

Cony eighth-grader Ayanna Goonesekere, a Buddhist and first-generation American, compared Augusta schools to her school’s soccer team. It is made up of students from many different countries who, when they play as a team, perform well. She said Augusta schools’ team of students, teachers and administrators are welcoming and help each other out, and the policy would have helped that by making it less likely students of different faiths would miss out on key school events with their peers.

The Augusta school board first took up the policy at an August meeting attended by about 70 people, many of whom urged its passage.

Board members referred the proposal to their policy committee. The committee revised it and voted last week to bring it to the full school board. While it was unanimous to send it to the full board, two of the three committee members — Clarke and Pia Holmes — eventually voted against adopting the policy.

Holmes, a former teacher and school administrator outside of Augusta, said she’s seen how hard the district’s educators work to accommodate students of all religions. She also expressed concern because the proposal included procedures, which she said are best left to school administrators to implement. She said she would not object if a school calendar were to include religious holidays on it, but she didn’t think that should be a policy.

Augusta has become considerably more diverse in recent years with the addition of refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, many of them Muslim, who have settled in the city.

About 50 people attended Wednesday’s meeting.

Judith Plano, who is Jewish and is raising her granddaughter, who attends Lincoln Elementary School, said when students are excluded from a school event because they have different religious beliefs, they can feel alienated — or even punished — if they miss, say, a sporting event to observe a religious holiday.

The proposed policy notes it would be the responsibility of parents or guardians to provide an advance notice of a student’s absence for observance of a religious holiday.

It also states that students who are fasting for religious purposes would be allowed to spend lunch time outside of the cafeteria; teachers would take religious dietary restrictions into consideration when scheduling class activities that involve food; and that students may request a private or semi-private place to pray or for quiet reflection during times when they are not in scheduled classes, such as recess, lunch breaks or study halls, and the School Department would provide access to such spaces if they are available.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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