The New Hyde Park/Garden City Park School Board meeting, held last Monday at the Manor Oaks School, was overflowing with concerned residents of the school district.
Clearly more than 250 people jammed every nook and corner of the main meeting room and as the evening wore on the temperature quickly rose to close to 90 degrees. Thankfully, the board held the public comments of the controversy at the beginning of the meeting, holding off the agenda of the meeting until the end, which turned out to end close to 1 a.m.
The discussion centered about the fact that at the end of the June meeting a woman, in traditional Muslim dress, came to the podium and requested that the Annual Christmas Concert be changed to a "holiday concert" because, she said, the Christmas Concert "offended many children" in the district.
At the time, school board president Patricia Rudd said that the suggestion would be taken under advisory and the meeting ended.
At the July meeting, the subject was brought up, by Rudd, under new business. It was not listed on the agenda and the board, after a lively discussion, voted to keep the concert a "Christmas Concert," but then appointed an Advisory Committee "to look into it."
After that vote, Superintendent Dr. Regina Cohn issued a statement stating how disappointed she was in the vote and how "offensive" it was to have a concert called a "Christmas Concert" for non-Christians and how she even, at one point in her career, had to work on Christmas day.
The report of that meeting in the Illustrated News set off a firestorm of letters in support of retaining the tradition of a "Christmas Concert" and further prompted the crowd to gather at the meeting.
Rudd asked for a 3-minute limit for each person and the marathon of speakers, 75 to be exact, came to the podium expressing distress about changing the "tradition" of a Christmas concert to a holiday concert. Only two in the crowd were in favor of changing the name of the concert.
Many speakers cited the fact that Christmas was a federal holiday. A nurse said that she, too, had to work on Christmas Day, because that was what her shift at a hospital asked of her.
Many of the speakers were longtime residents of New Hyde Park who said the reason they chose the community was its sense of tradition and one of those traditions was the Christmas concert.
Those were also the sentiments of some of the newer residents, who said they researched the area and the school prior to buying a house and felt it offered the same "values" they wanted for their children.
Michelle Chambers, who has been very vocal regarding the retention of a Christmas Concert submitted to the school board clerk Diana Biehayn more than 1,400 petitions asking the board not to change the name of the Christmas Concert.
Chambers, as part of her statement said, "We challenge the board to provide a listing of children who have not participated in our Christmas Concert solely because it is called a Christmas Concert.
"An amazing thing happened when our treasured tradition was challenged. More than 1,000 people joined the effort to petition the superintendent and the school board. Outrage rang throughout the district and we banded together to rally against those who thought they could dismiss us.
"People chose this town for what it is. Cohn did not move her family to New Hyde Park because this was not a town that followed her values. She wants to move the concert and celebrate our children by renaming the Christmas Concert and have a winter concert at the end of January or February. At that time our decorations are put away for next year and Valentine hearts have already filled the stores. So, what does that celebrate?
"Its been easy to be complacent and to not attend board meetings and put decisions into the hands of others, and it boggles our minds to realize that our superintendent and our school board, those neighbors that we voted in, even considered changing the Christmas Concert. How can a superintendent and school board represent our best interests if they don't represent what the community believes in? We understand that Dr. Cohn is the root of this offense. We understand that she has applied pressure on the board members to make this non-educational, offensive change for at least 10 months. We now see her true colors and we hope these are not the true colors of our elected school board members.
"We now feel it's time for Dr. Cohn to move on. It's time to return our superintendent's office to a person with integrity. A person who represents what our community believes in. We need a voice of the people, as I am the voice of the people making this request.
"Thank you for shaking one of our core values and spurring us into action. We are over a thousand voices strong and we will be heard!"
Next up to the microphone was Richard Wozniak who said, "The community has recognized Christmas, in our homes, on our streets and in our schools since the very first home, store and school was erected. Our observance of Christmas is and always has been part of America's cultural as well as religious heritage.
"Christmas is one of the most sacred of our American traditions as it represents a vast majority of the people that make up this great nation. Christmas stands for peace on earth, goodwill toward men, charity, love, compassion, redemption, kindness, forgiveness and everything related to the goodness of one's heart.
"We do not enforce this faith on others, yet we as a nation embrace all people of all faiths in this great country and invite them to celebrate in a religious and cultural heritage that from the beginning has been the foundation of the freedoms we enjoy.
"Who can be offended by this message, for one who is offended by this message most certainly will be offended by the very Judeo-Christian principles that this country was built on.
"The Congress in Washington continues to recognize Christmas as a legal public holiday in America. The United States Supreme Court has also acknowledged with approval our nation's longstanding recognition of religiously significant holidays such as Christmas. It is not illegal for either school or government officials to continue to refer to December 25 as Christmas or to refer to the vacations days and concerts that surround that date as Christmas Vacation or Christmas Concert.
"Tonight it is the will of the people to not simply walk away victorious, but instead to see that this issue is never again brought forward in the manner that it was. Up to now the only two reasons that I have been given regarding the board's proposal to change the name and the date of our cherished Christmas concert is that some children had to be pulled out of the convert as they and their families are offended, and we are the only district that still calls it a Christmas Concert. To the first, I would like to know just how many people are offended and would like to see enough documentation supporting this fact that would warrant such an extreme change, and to the latter I say thank God our community has chosen not to be silent."
One woman, an educator, but not in the district, said she thought it would be a good idea to hold a Christmas Concert, but to also hold a multi-cultural celebration of other ethnic holidays that fall in the same general time of the year such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa with dances and perhaps foods of the other backgrounds and then everyone would be involved.
Resident Sue Viscardi said, "I'm sorry and angry that I was not at the last board meeting. Sometimes I wish I knew, in advance, what is on the agenda. I am here to comment on the Illustrated News article. First, I don't think it's correct protocol to have an item under new business that can be discussed and voted on the same night. It should be discussed and then opened to the floor for comment and then voted on as an agenda item at a future meeting.
"When you use the argument that Christmas Day is a national holiday and that it is everywhere you are right but that's commercialization, not education.
"The children in our schools take part in the chorus and they are told what to sing and the parents attend and are so proud of their children and that brings them to the concert.
"I am a Christian and practice my faith quite openly, mostly trying to make the choice between good and evil, right and wrong. If you want to say that the Christmas Concert is about one word and it has nothing to do with religion than I am offended. Please, do not take Christ out of Christmas. That one word is recognized to be as important as the Bible, the Cross, the Star of David, the Koran, the Crescent and many others. So when I go to a Christmas Concert I want to hear traditional songs and carols but that's my faith and it has nothing to do with what our public school district should be playing.
"So, please don't use the First Amendment. Maybe I've confused some of you because I haven't stated what I feel our December concert should be called. Would it really matter now? Based on the article, it came across that some board members are confusing their personal choices and just choices in general without representing the entire community. Back to my opinion, and that of a few families unable to be here, based mostly upon fear. Our public school concert held in December around winter solstice should be called Winterfest."
There was just one other woman who spoke and she, too, felt that the Christmas Concert should be renamed.
Time after time questions were asked of the board, but Rudd held true to her original statement that the board was just listening, not commenting. Finally, at the end of the 75 speakers, a man came to the microphone and said since the board would not answer any of the many questions asked of it, would they consider holding a meeting just on this one topic in the form of a round table, and sit with people to answer some of the questions that have been asked. One such question was if an Advisory Committee was still going to be appointed.
Rudd said that was a possibility and she would examine the calendar to see when there would be time to schedule such a meeting.
That portion of the meeting finally ended. The board took a brief break and returned the agenda of the evening.
It was ascertained, by Dr. Cohn, that Governor Spitzer has put aside monies for each district to hold a Universal pre-Kindergarten. For New Hyde Park/Garden City Park, the amount is $110,000. Dr. Cohn explained that since there is no room at any of the schools in the district, she researched and found that Harbor Child Care, a program at the Herricks Community Center, 999 Herricks Road, New Hyde Park, would be the best program for the pre-K students in the district. There are 41 spaces available so the first 41 parents to apply will be considered for the program.
Another new event with the start of this year's school year will be that the Kindergarten students will start at the same time as the rest of the students at 8:30 a.m. and included in their curriculum will be music, art and physical education.
Dr. Cohn gave a report on the self-sustaining summer program and the district goals for 2007/'08 were approved by the board.
The meeting finally ended and all of the exhausted board members, administrators and a few loyal community members dragged themselves to their cars and home.
The next board meeting has been scheduled for Sept. 10 after the opening of school.