Plan to Cut Veterans Day and Columbus Day Sparks Uproar at Stamford Board of Education

(CT Examiner)


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STAMFORD – Shortly after the start of Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, President Jackie Heftman announced it was “time for the public to be heard,” and laid out the rules for speaking.

But the 150 or 200 people who packed the board room on the fifth floor of the Stamford Government Center weren’t in the mood for rules.

They were there to implore board members to reverse their January decision to eliminate Columbus Day and Veterans Day as school holidays. They waved American and Italian flags, wore caps and jackets fixed with military insignia, and held signs that read “Columbus Day is an American holiday” and “Respect our veterans – freedom isn’t free.”

And they weren’t quiet.

The first speaker was Dr. Al Fusco, a retired dentist and founding member of the Stamford chapter of UNICO, an Italian-American service organization. Fusco was a member of a committee that, at the Board of Education’s invitation, devised a school calendar that included Columbus Day and Veterans Day as holidays. 

The board then ignored the recommendation and dropped both days from the school holiday calendar.

“Democracy is a system of government where power is invested in the people,” Fusco said from a desk facing the nine school board members sitting at their conference table. 

The calendar committee “made a decision and you rejected it,” Fusco said. “For a month we have written to you and rallied outside this building and you have not responded,” he said.

The crowd broke into applause. 

“We don’t work for you,” someone shouted. “You work for us!”

Fusco continued.

“We want you to amend the school calendar and not steal from us holidays we have had for decades,” he said.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” the crowd shouted.

Heftman, the board president, tried to tone things down.

“You are using up Dr. Fusco’s time,” she warned the crowd.

“So are you!” someone shouted back.

Why just two?

The board was expected to approve the recommended calendar on Jan. 23 but, near the end of that meeting, one of the members made a motion to eliminate five holidays, saying the school year is too long. That motion was quickly amended to reinsert three of the holidays – Juneteenth, the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, and the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The board then voted 5-3 to adopt a calendar eliminating only Veterans Day and Columbus Day. 

The decision is inconsistent, given that Juneteenth, Veterans Day and Columbus Day are federal holidays, said the next speaker, Anthony Martino.

All three “should be recognized that way” and not be eliminated to shorten the school year, said Martino, whose parents were Stamford public school teachers. “Please understand how any reasonable person could take it as an insult” if only certain federal holidays are ignored, Martino said.

The decision doesn’t make sense for another reason, said the next speaker, Steve Fischer, commander of the Stamford Veterans’ Council. Stamford’s school year is already shorter than it is in surrounding districts, Fischer said.

“On what other holiday can you go up to a person and say, ‘You are why we are celebrating today?’” Fischer asked the board. 

Tom Finn Jr., an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and commander of American Legion Post 3 in Stamford, said few families now understand the sacrifices of military members. Statistics show that only 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military.

“I can’t tell you how many holidays I’ve missed with my family … because I was overseas doing what none of you has done,” Finn said to the board.

He was followed at the microphone by Thomas Patterson, an Army veteran of the Gulf War era, the Post 3 vice commander, and a volunteer with the Stamford Veterans Resource Center.

“Think of the people who have lost their lives just in the last few weeks, just so you can sleep at night,” Patterson told school board members. “Now you’re telling us we got this wrong? On Election Day we’ll see you at the booth and we’ll tell you, ‘No. You got it wrong.’”

Patterson read from an American Legion saying: “It is the veteran, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the veteran, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble. It is the veteran, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.”

It drew huge applause. “Shame on the board!” someone shouted. “You’re a disgrace!”

Emotions escalate

Speaker Paul Arvoy, showed board members a pocket watch worn by his great-grandfather during World War I. The watch stopped a bullet and saved his great-grandfather’s life, Arvoy said.

“Every Veterans Day we take out this pocket watch,” Arvoy said. “I was on the school calendar committee to help make sure this holiday was preserved. I had no indication it would be removed.”

Other speakers added to the emotion, and people called out comments from the crowd. 

Heftman wrapped up the public portion of the meeting after all those who had signed up had spoken.

“I can assure you that, if at some later date there are five votes to restore the calendar, we will do that,” Heftman said. 

In the meantime, she said, people are invited to take part in shaping the curriculum for what students will be taught on Veterans Day and Columbus Day, since they will be in class on those holidays beginning this fall.

It didn’t quell the crowd.

“It’s too late!” someone shouted. “How can we trust you?” said someone else. “Restore the holiday, then we’ll talk about curriculum,” a third person said.

“You can either listen to the rest of this meeting or the board will take a recess and clear the room,” Heftman told them.

The shouting continued, so she called a recess.

Police arrive

Someone called Stamford police. Four officers arrived to find that most of the crowd had left the conference room, and the Board of Education was continuing its business to the sound of loud voices in the hall.

Italian-Americans said they understood that Columbus, and the holiday, are divisive. Some view Columbus as a hero who connected the old world of Europe to the new world of the Americas, and others see him as a plunderer who enslaved the indigenous people he encountered in his voyages. 

The federal government gave him a holiday, Italian-Americans said, and the early immigrants embraced it as they faced discrimination in their new country. It’s been especially true in Stamford, where as much as a third of the population has reported Italian roots over the decades. The city historically has had more than its share of veterans, too.

Tony Rizzi said he was frustrated to hear one school board member say she didn’t know of any families who celebrate Columbus Day.

“On that day we go to Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Stamford, the only Italian parish left in Fairfield County,” Rizzi said. “We are proud to be American, but Columbus Day is about our heritage.” 

Patricia Parry said the Board of Education decision “is a crime.” Parry’s 31-year-old son, Navy SEAL Brian Bill, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.

“My primary reason for wanting the holiday restored is that my son came back under a flag, in a coffin,” Parry said. “My other reason is to support veterans. Brian wanted to be a veteran.”

The issues are too big to give up on restoring the school holidays, said Fusco, an Army veteran of the Vietnam era.

“I’m hoping that at next month’s board meeting they will consider putting this on the agenda, re-voting it, and doing what the community has asked them to do,” Fusco said.

Marisa Orgera, a member of UNICO and other Italian-American organizations, said protesters still hope to change minds on the Board of Education.

“If we can’t, we will let them know they have lost our support,” Orgera said. “I mean, they are elected, aren’t they?”

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.