Veterans: ‘A slap in the face’

Ignacio Laguarda, Stamford Advocate Staff Writer - 2/16/2024

Original Article

STAMFORD — The recent Board of Education vote to convert Columbus Day and Veterans Day into in-school holidays in Stamford was a shock to many, including some who worked on the district's calendar committee.

Stephen Fischer, commander of the Stamford Veterans Council, was part of that committee, and said he first heard of the board's decision in The Stamford Advocate.

"We thought it was an open and shut deal,” Fischer said of the proposed calendar that was before the board for a final vote on Jan. 24.

Neither holiday was proposed to be in-school days this year until the meeting, when Republican member Joshua Esses made a motion to take each off the calendar for the next two school years. Before the meeting, the calendar had been approved by the calendar committee and later by the board's Labor Committee by a vote of 3-2. 

Esses' motion passed by a vote of 5-3, with board president Jackie Heftman absent. In favor were Esses, Michael Hyman, Gabriela Koc, Versha Munshi-South and Antonia Better-Wirz. Members Andy George, Becky Hamman and Michael Larobina voted against the measure.

Now, both veteran groups and Italian-Americans are protesting the vote. They held a rally outside of Government Center on Monday asking that both holidays be restored as days off for students and staff.

"This is about American traditions and American holidays," said Joe Andreana Jr., chair of the Stamford Republican Town Committee. "From my personal perspective, we are limiting the ability to pay respect and honor and celebrate inclusion by eliminating those days from the calendar."

The day after the vote, Andreana released a joint statement with RTC vice chair Pat Sasser.

"The body of the RTC does not support the recent decision made by the Board of Education to eliminate Veterans Day or Columbus Day," wrote Andreana and Sasser. "These long-standing American holidays embody inclusion and the diversity of the citizens in Stamford and America. We hope that the Stamford Board of Education will reconsider this vote with the entire board members present; especially when it was recommended to remain intact by the subcommittee."

Fischer, who also put out a joint statement with Rick Redniss, president of the Stamford Veterans Park Partnership, called for Veterans Day to be brought back as a day off from school.

"Most veterans have taken it as a slap in the face," he said.

Kathleen Steinberg, spokesperson for the school district, said the calendar could be revisited if a member of the Board of Education makes a motion to amend a future agenda to discuss the topic. In order for that motion to pass, another member would need to second it, and then the majority of the board would have to vote in favor of amending the agenda.

Both Columbus Day and Veterans Day, which are currently days off from school in Stamford, had been proposed as in-school days last year as well. But after push-back from local veterans and Italian-Americans, both remained untouched.  

During the Jan. 24 meeting, Esses argued that the proposed 181-day school calendar lasted too long — into mid-June — which is why he suggested also eliminating the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr and the second day of Rosh Hashanah as days off, a motion that received no support from the rest of the board. State law requires students be in school 180 days.

"We should make (the calendar) shorter because it’s better educationally for our students," Esses said during the meeting.

On Monday, Esses elaborated on that stance.

"A school day in October or November is more valuable than in June, when the students and teachers are largely checked out just waiting for summer break," he wrote in a text message.

Further, he said having students in school on both holidays provides an opportunity for them to learn about the significance of each.

"I think learning why we honor Columbus and our veterans — in school — is more meaningful than a vacation day," he wrote.

Each holiday would still be recognized in the educational content provided on each day, a requirement under state statute. The statute that governs the educational content of Columbus Day and Veterans Day also forbids school districts from not observing federal holidays that fall in December or January, such as Christmas, New Year's Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For other holidays, however, the statute leaves the decision up to the school board.

Esses described the backlash to the board's vote to eliminate Columbus Day and Veterans Day as days off as "frustrating."

"Some people want to make it about the culture wars or 'wokes' canceling American traditions," he wrote. "Renaming 'Columbus Day' to 'Indigenous People's Day,' for instance, is the sort of nonsense to which I am opposed. That's just not the story here."

In one of her weekly messages to the community, Superintendent Tamu Lucero said she heard from many people after the vote.

"While some in our community are disappointed by this decision, I see it as an opportunity to more fully recognize these holidays as a school community," she wrote.

She said district schools have hosted many events in recognition of Veterans Day in the past and keeping school open will allow them to do that on the actual holiday. Further, she said curriculum would be developed for Columbus Day.

"I have asked our Teaching and Learning team to develop Columbus Day programming for students in PreK-12," she wrote. "As Columbus is not a part of the social studies curriculum at every grade level, this change presents an opportunity for students to hear about Columbus every year."

Lucero also mentioned that Stamford is hardly alone in keeping school buildings open during the two holidays. Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, Trumbull and Wilton all have school on those days.