BRISTOL, R.I. — One day after a contentious regional school committee meeting at which the start of school in Bristol and Warren was delayed by one day to accommodate Rosh Hashanah, the district’s superintendent announced he was resigning.
Superintendent Jonathan Brice’s decision, made in a letter to the community Tuesday, did not mention the controversy as the reason for his departure. Rather, he cited family reasons. His resignation is effective immediately, according to one school committee member.
“This is a decision that I did not make lightly, but one that is in the best interest of my family and myself,” he wrote. “My career has always been a priority, but the pandemic and the loss of my mother has shown me how precious life is, and I can no longer accept not seeing and being with my family as much as possible.”
Brice’s sudden departure came after he ordered schools in the Bristol Warren Regional School District to move opening day from Tuesday, Sept. 7 to the following day, Sept. 8, because Sept. 7 is the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a two-day celebration of the Jewish New Year. That was his original recommendation before the calendar blew up into controversy, and the committee should have followed it, he wrote in his letter announcing the move.
The school committee meeting Monday night laid bare the divisions that the dispute had caused in Bristol and Warren, as members of the school committee argued for more than 40 minutes in a failed attempt to change the calendar a second time in order to accommodate the second night of the holiday.
One group, the Jewish Alliance of Rhode Island, had previously said it would accept such a compromise, because the first day of Rosh Hashanah — one of the most important days in the Jewish faith — is more widely celebrated than the second. The Torah forbids work on Rosh Hashanah and other important holy days.
But to others, the compromise did not go far enough. Rosh Hashanah starts this year at sundown Sept. 6 and ends the evening of Sept. 8. United Brothers Synagogue will have services on both Sept. 7 and Sept. 8, cantor Joel Gluck said. He thanked the superintendent for doing what he did, even as he said it wasn’t the best solution.
Those advocating for the change said they are not asking to have Rosh Hashanah off every year, just when it falls on the first day of school, which they say is too important for students and teachers to miss, especially after COVID-19 disruptions.
Rosh Hashanah is based on a lunar calendar, so it does not occur on the same date in the Gregorian calendar every year. It’s been decades since the holiday would land on the first day of school, and it will be decades more before it does so again, according to the Jewish Alliance.
After the committee’s chair said it would accept the superintendent’s move to move the school start date to Sept. 8, one member on Monday night proposed moving the first day of school to Sept. 9, to avoid Rosh Hashanah altogether.
Others, though, held firm, and said they could not accommodate such a move.
“We are a public school system, we cannot take off every religious holiday, as we have students and employees who practice many different faiths,” member Sheila Ellsworth said. “It is my opinion that if we move the date to Sept. 8 or 9, we’re saying one religious holiday holds more value than another, which is not being inclusive or equitable.”
Bristol’s 2021-2022 school calendar has days off on Good Friday and for a week around Christmas.
Ellsworth said she’d been attacked in deeply personal terms and called hateful names in anonymous messages for her position. She also objected to fellow committee members and political leaders pressuring her to change her vote, and a rabbi reaching out to her own religious leader to ask to talk about it, saying this sort of thing was “not democracy,” but “bullying.”
She also accused fellow member Carly Reich of stepping out of line by saying in a radio interview that the majority of the town and its school committee are still “older white folks.”
“I find these comments and actions to be offensive and divisive,” Ellsworth said. She added later: “My 95-year-old neighbor was born and raised in this town. She tells me great stories of what the town was like when she was growing up and how she enjoys seeing this town evolve from what it is today. Our older white folks have built this community and have instilled values to respect each other and care for our neighbors.”
Reich, who was in favor of moving the first day of school, acknowledged she’d tried to change the minds of fellow members. “This is how politics works,” she said. “People speak to one another. They go in public and they express their values.”
Donna Stouber, a science teacher at Kickemuit Middle School who is Jewish, said after the meeting that the school committee still didn’t get it.
“They seem to think we are looking for a day off,” said Stouber, who said she celebrates Rosh Hashanah for two days as a Conservative Jew. “We are just asking that when you have a day as important as a first day of school, you make it a priority that it be open to all.”
The news of Brice’s departure only adds to the uncertainty in the Bristol-Warren schools. Reich, the committee member, said in an e-mailed statement that she was “heartbroken to hear that members of the school committee had decided to part ways with Dr. Brice.”
Brice has been with the district for about two years.
“His vision for Bristol Warren Schools was one that I believed in wholeheartedly,” Reich said. “I had hoped that he would have been given time to fulfill his vision of Bristol Warren becoming a top 5 academically performing district within 5 years.”
Marjorie McBride, the school committee chair, did not respond to an e-mail Tuesday about whether the committee had pushed Brice to leave.