More voices come forward to protest Sept. 30 referendum

School district’s bond referendum would fall on Rosh Hashana


More parties on the state, county and local level have joined the chorus of protest against the planned Sept. 30 date for a $57.8 million bond referendum in Edison, because that date is also the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana.

Religious leaders began voicing their strong disapproval of the planned date for the referendum early last week, because Rosh Hashana is meant to be a time of rest, which precludes members of the Jewish community from taking part in the vote that day. While people would still be able to cast their votes via absentee ballot, this solution was seen as unsatisfactory.

Monsignor Michael J. Alliegro, rector of St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral in Metuchen, condemned the referendum date, saying he was amazed at the lack of sensitivity displayed by Edison’s school district and wondered what planet they are living on to not recognize Rosh Hashana as one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar.

“Absentee ballots notwithstanding, the act of voting is one of our most important civic duties, and gathering at the polling place is one of those aspects of a society that is marked by civility, tolerance and diversity. To deprive anyone of this right diminishes us all,” Alliegro said in a correspondence with Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg, an Edison resident who has been active in trying to convince the district to change the referendum date to one that would not be religiously significant.

Rosenberg, in previous conversations with the Sentinel, said the ability to send in absentee ballots was beside the point and that if the district had chosen to hold an election on Christmas, people would be understandably upset, regardless of whether the option for absentee ballots was available. And with this in mind, he asked why the same consideration should not be given to Rosh Hashana.

Further, he stated that not as many voters send in absentee ballots, and thus holding the vote on Sept. 30 undercuts representation by members of the Jewish community, many of whom send their children to private school and may be less inclined to support the measure.

Acting Superintendent John Dimuzio, as well as members of the Board of Education had said in response that it’s the state, not the district, that determines when a referendum can be held. Dimuzio had said that while theoretically the district could hold the referendum in December, this three-month gap presents an unacceptable delay, because the bond is to finance school construction in a district already facing problems with overcrowding.

The bond measure, if approved by the voters, will go toward expansions to three elementary schools and the construction of one entirely new school.

In a statement released on Aug. 14, the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County stated that they understood the pressure the district is under to alleviate overcrowding in its schools, and that these factors compound the “unfortunate calendar selection,” but still expressed great concern over the date, saying that it disenfranchises Jewish voters.

“An election on Rosh Hashana defeats the Board of Education intent, since it does not bring the issues to all of the voters and in practice, narrows the voter pool by disenfranchising part of the electorate,” reads the statement signed by the organization’s chair, Philip Cantor, and its director, Gabriela Sleppin.

The statement said the organization would be in contact with state entities regarding the matter.

Also expressing an interest in the issue is state Sen. Barbara Buono, (D- 18th District), who has vowed to intervene in any way she can to block the Sept. 30 referendum.

“We have a very diverse society, and it’s important to remain sensitive and to understand the many different religions and cultural traditions that are important to everyone, each individual group, and so I think it’s just a matter of fairness,” Buono said in a phone interview.

The senator said she will seek emergency legislative approval for a bill she is drafting that addresses the fact that the state is currently unable to change the date of special school district elections to something other than the last Tuesday in September, the second Tuesday in December, the second Tuesday in March or the fourth Tuesday in January, in the event that any of these days coincides with a religious holiday.

The legislation that created the April school district elections has such a provision, to avoid conflict with the Jewish holiday of Passover, but the bill that allows special district elections, passed in 2001, does not have such a provision.

Buono’s bill would have the state education commissioner review on an annual basis the four dates set in the statute to check for conflicts with religious holidays.

In order to place the bill before the Legislature, the Senate and Assembly, which are currently in recess, would have to reconvene for a special session.

“We [the Senate] don’t have the calendar yet, we don’t have a schedule, but there’s certainly no reason the Legislature shouldn’t [be able to] come into session right after Labor Day. There’s no obstacle, no barrier to the Legislature coming back before — well before — the Sept. 30 date,” said Buono.

Jennifer Sciortino, a spokesperson with Senate President Richard Codey, said the Senate is not currently scheduled to come back in September, but that the senator’s office is currently “looking into this matter.”

Buono also said she has scheduled a

meeting with Gov. Jon Corzine and members of the Jewish community to discuss the matter further. She said, though, that the governor’s legal counsel does not believe that Corzine, with an executive order, would be able to override the election’s date under the current statute. But Buono said she would like to meet with Corzine and discuss what other options might be available, noting also that time is of the essence, since the referendum date is a short time away.