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The West Linn-Wilsonville School District says it can't make decisions based on religion.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Parents are asking for changes to the 2021-22 calendar so the first day is not on the important Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The 2021-22 school year in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District is set to begin on the same day as the important Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, leaving students and staff of the Jewish faith to have to choose between observing a religious holiday and participating in the first day of school.

Following the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board's approval of the 2021-22 school calendar — with the first day set for Sept. 7 — at the Feb. 22 board meeting, a group of Jewish parents in the district pointed out this schedule conflict to the board and requested an adjustment to the calendar.

"Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days of the Jewish year," said Michelle Bombet Minch, a mother in the district and the chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council (a branch of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland). "It's actually the first day of the Jewish year."

She said she and many other Jewish families spend both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which is just 10 days later, in the synagogue.

"We don't work and we don't go to school," she said, adding that these are days of prayer and reflection in the Jewish community.

Bombet Minch also pointed out a common misconception that Hanukkah is the most important Jewish holiday, when Rosh Hashanah is much more prominent.

Bombet Minch and two other parents, Cally Korach and Gail Greenman, asked the board and Superintendent Kathy Ludwig for school to begin either the day before or the day after Rosh Hashanah.

The parents attached a letter from the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland that explains the significance of Rosh Hashanah.

"They (the board and Ludwig) responded with 'Well you should have told us sooner,' which is really interesting because the holiday is on every calendar," Bombet Minch said.

An email response from board Chair Regan Molatore, which was obtained by Pamplin Media Group, asked that the board be notified of conflicts in advance of approving the calendar.

In her response, Molatore also shared a concern around adjusting the calendar for a religious reason.

"The specific nature of your ask - that the District re-set our school calendar based on a religious observance – asks us to make a decision based on religion. As a public institution, we cannot make decisions based on religion or religious preference," Molatore said in her email to Bombet Minch.

However, the Oregon School Board Association gave guidance to districts, via an article on March 9, to avoid starting classes on Tuesday, Sept. 7, due to Rosh Hashanah.

"We're not asking for school to be closed. We're not asking for it to be a holiday or anything," Bombet Minch told Pamplin Media Group. "We're just asking you to not create a conflict where students miss their first day of school."

She said the issue is about inclusivity and she would support the first day of school not being held on any religious holiday. She sees this scheduling conflict as an opportunity for the board and district to "walk the walk" when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion issues.

The issue is not unique to West Linn-Wilsonville. Districts across the country have recently changed start days so as not to interfere with religious holidays. The Eugene School District 4J also recently expanded its religious accommodations policy that "seeks to aid students in avoiding conflicts between religious observances and important school events." The previous version of the policy excused students from class due to religious beliefs and allowed them to make up class work without penalty. The expanded version, which the Eugene School Board approved in October 2020, prohibits the district from scheduling important events that can be made up — like an annual school open house — on major religious holidays.

In an interview with Pamplin Media Group, Molatore said she could not share any information at the moment as to whether the board will take action on this issue.

"Since adopting a school calendar in late February, the School Board has received input from stakeholders regarding the first day of school. The Board will continue to listen to our community and its feedback to better understand any and all concerns that are raised," she wrote in an email to Pamplin Media Group after the interview.

Ludwig did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bombet Minch said she met with the board on the matter Monday, March 15.

"I think that having that meeting helped to clarify because I think sometimes the messaging can be lost through email," she said.

But whether anything will come from it is still up in the air.

"I don't know that (meeting) will have an impact in making a change," she said.

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