PORTLAND — Public schools will start a day earlier than previously planned in September after the School Board voted Tuesday to move up the first day of school because of a conflict with the Jewish New Year.

In an 8-1 vote, the board moved the first day of school to Sept. 4, a day before Rosh Hashana. The decision followed objections from members of the Jewish community and the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, who said students and teachers should not have to choose between a significant school event and worshipping on a religious holiday.

Also Tuesday, two weeks after voters approved a $96.4 million school budget for the 2014 fiscal year, the board laid off the first group of what is expected to be about 49 full-time employees from throughout the district.

The board eliminated 12 teachers and five assistant principals.

Board members lamented the layoffs and apologized to the some of the employees, who spoke to the board, before voting to lay them off.

“We have to make choices that are unpleasant,” board member Laurie Davis said. “They are not choices we enjoy making, but we have a budget and it’s limited. … It’s not a pleasant place to be, but that’s where we are tonight.”

In the 8-1 vote, only Holly Seeliger voted against the layoffs.

“I’m not really interested being a rubber stamp,” Seeliger said, adding that she thinks the School Department could have worked to find ways to avoid the job cuts.

The teachers and principals were the first group to be laid off because their contracts require they receive a 90-day notice.

Kathy Hanley, a librarian from Peaks Island who has worked in the school system for nine years, is one of those who will lose her job.

“It’s a crime,” she told the board. “It’s very sad that we’re doing this.”

School calendar

Board Member Sarah Thompson said the decision to change the first day of school was not being made to accommodate one particular religion, but to be respectful of the diversity in city schools.

“This conversation has created an opportunity for leadership and students to learn and celebrate that diversity,” Thompson said before the board voted. “Sometimes we make comments here and we don’t necessarily understand what we’re talking about. … I think we really hit a nerve here and that it really behooves us to talk more about inclusion.”

The schedule change not only moves the first day of school, but also moves the second teacher professional day from Sept. 4 to Sept. 6 – essentially canceling classes on that day, which for some Jews is the second day of Rosh Hashana. Students will return to school Sept. 9. 

Kindergartners will start school Sept. 9, which is the Hindu holiday of Ganesh Chaturthi.

Most schools in the area will start Sept. 3 or 4, or in late August. The city schools are the only ones in The Forecaster’s coverage area that were scheduled to start Sept. 5.

The first day of school was originally scheduled on Sept. 5 because the first Thursday of September is traditionally when Portland schools open.

The board discussed the conflict with Rosh Hashana in detail at its April meeting, when the calendar was originally approved. But members at that time decided to proceed, citing fairness and the need for teacher preparation days.

At the meeting Tuesday night, board members criticized the organization of the schedule and blamed the calendar-making process as a whole for getting them into this situation.

Member Jenna Vendil said the task force charged with developing the calendar was “set up to fail” and had its recommendations ignored.

Kate Snyder, who voted against the calendar in April, but approved the calendar with the amendment Tuesday, said she wanted the task force to be more inclusive.

“I had hoped the calendar task force would have included (Portland Education Association) membership, and I’m surprised that it didn’t,” Snyder said. “I would like there to be an understanding about ways to improve this process. I didn’t like the idea of starting school on a High Holy Day … and it’s clear that this didn’t resonate well with the community.”

The vote to accommodate Rosh Hashana pleased Susan Schwartz, who spoke to the board in favor of the schedule change and said afterwards she believed the schedule conflict was a misunderstanding.

“The Portland school system as a whole is very respectful of trying to meet the needs of a variety of cultures and religious holidays,” Schwartz said, noting that religious accomodations have been made for sporting events and test dates. “Across the board there has always been an attempt at being understanding and helpful when religious holidays cause kids to be out of school. This is an example of that.”

Board member Elizabeth Brooks cast the dissenting vote on the calendar change.

Brooks is originally from the United Kingdom, which maintains Christianity as the official state religion. She said she values the United States’ principle of separation of church and state.

“I cannot deliberately change the schedule to accommodate a religious holiday. Separation of church and state should be the guideline here,” she said. “For my own principle, I can’t see voting for a calendar that accommodates a religion. I think we need to be sensitive to all religions, not just one.”

Portland schools, like most school districts, traditionally only accommodate one religious holiday within the regular calendar, typically scheduling winter break just before Christmas.

Kathleen Casasa, president of the PEA, said at the meeting the union supports the board’s decision to give teachers the preparation days they need, while still allowing all to attend the first day of school. 

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow Will on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

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