Sag Harbor School Board Forms Task Force to Look at Adding Juneteenth To School Calendar; Reconsidering Columbus Day Holiday

Members of the Sag Harbor Board of Education discuss changes to the school calendar at Monday night's meeting.

The Sag Harbor Union Free School District has plans to form a task force to discuss changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and adding Juneteenth to next year’s school calendar.

Board of Education Vice President Jordana Sobey had brought the topic up for discussion in the summer, after being approached about the changes by a teacher and several community members. She wanted to deliberate the decision again as Columbus Day approaches.

“I think Columbus Day is something everyone has grown up with and associates with having a nice, long fall weekend — and that sounds great, but what it really represents is colonialism and part of American history that’s not so great,” Ms. Sobey said. “In this district, we go to great lengths to teach our students about the history of Sag Harbor. … I think having a holiday to celebrate indigenous peoples seems more appropriate in this day and age than Columbus Day.”

The board vice president said she does, however, understand that Columbus Day was originally intended to be a celebration of Italian heritage at a time when Italians were discriminated against.

“I understand why some people feel strongly in opposition — why they would want to keep it,” Ms. Sobey said. “I just wanted to bring it up for discussion. Maybe we can make the change like so many other states and cities have done, or we can consider doing something different, or just acknowledging it in some way, but I think it would be a real great way to create a more well-rounded and meaningful holiday that can enrich our children’s education when they learn about it.”

A total of 12 states and the District of Columbia, along with at least 55 cities now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. South Dakota was the first state to recognize the holiday in 1990. It was instituted in Berkeley, California, in 1992, to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. On the national level, the federal Columbus Day holiday remains in place.

“If you look back in American history, a lot of the people that we celebrate, whether it’s George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, have histories or parts of their history where they were involved in things that we don’t look upon in a positive light currently, and we shouldn’t,” Superintendent Jeff Nichols said. “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves; Benjamin Franklin was a pretty big proponent of segregation; and Columbus, he definitely played a pretty big role in uniting the two hemispheres with his exploration, but as Jordana said, the history of the holiday is such that it was broader than just his accomplishments.”

On June 17, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation making Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, an official state holiday. Also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day, it is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. Juneteenth is on a Saturday in 2021, right before the start of summer break.

“It’s not a scheduled day off, but a day of education on the topic,” Ms. Sobey said. “It’s a great opportunity to remind everyone. We could give the students a nice list of books to read over the summer.”

Mr. Nichols said he sees making Juneteenth a calendar holiday a more obvious and clear-cut decision.

“I think with Juneteenth, for me, that’s a straightforward issue,” the superintendent said. “Freedom is a bedrock principal of our democracy.”

He said the district should proceed in a thoughtful, prudent and measured way, proposing the idea of forming a task force by October that will discuss the issues and present recommendations to the board by January. The board of education votes on calendar recommendations for the 2021-22 school year in February.

“I don’t think it stops with just these two issues,” he said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. In society, and rightly so, we’re starting to reexamine a lot of issues — parts of our history. We need to create a thoughtful plan.”

Board member Chris Tice endorsed Mr. Nichols’s proposal, adding she would like to see board members sitting on the committee, while board President Brian DeSesa said it’s also important to have students weigh in.

“It provides a good learning experience for both the students and the community,” he said. “In my mind, it’s the students’ calendar. It’s an opportunity for all sides … to provide for an ample conversation, a learning experience and to provide for the maximum amount of input.”

Board member Sandi Kruel said it’s also imperative the task force be comprised of people with different views and opinions. While board member Yorgos Tsibiridis said he was in favor of adding Juneteenth to the calendar, he sees amending Columbus Day more controversial.

“It’s the day Columbus landed in America. It’s still part of a celebration of that day,” he said. “I understand Jordana’s concerns, but right now I think it’s a political decision, and I don’t think it’s up to us to make that decision.”

Board member Susan Schaefer said she also likes the superintendent’s task for idea, but added she sees the recognition of Columbus Day a little differently.

“History is a part of life. It’s good and bad. With certain holidays there’s pros and cons, there’s happiness and sadness,” she said. “There’s a reason why it’s Columbus Day. I know that people feel certain ways about certain things, but I don’t think this is something we can jump into or take lightly. I think it needs to be talked about.”