Staff decides to exclude three songs from concert

By James McEvoy, Managing Editor
   BORDENTOWN TOWNSHIP — The MacFarland Intermediate School’s winter concert Dec. 3 will have a silent night — at least with regard to three religious songs, which sparked recent controversy in Bordentown.
   Since formal examination of the district policy on religious music in schools will not be addressed before the school concert, the Bordentown Regional Board of Education has opted to maintain its current policy, which places the responsibility of song selections on staff.
   ”My administrative decision (Nov. 1) allowed the latitude for staff to use their professional judgment and to exercise appropriate autonomy in the selections with which they are preparing the students for the concerts,” said Superintendent Constance Bauer at the Nov. 13 board meeting. “That does mean, in accordance with current policy and all the associated practices, staff has the latitude to select pieces that they feel they can appropriately prepare students to perform in alignment with the guidance that they received throughout the course of the last five or so weeks that this case has been before us.”
   In an email after the meeting, Dr. Bauer said, as such, “The program may include religious selections as per the current policy.”
   At issue were the songs, “Bring the Torch,” “Los Reyes de Oriente” and “We Sing Gloria.”
   Tuesday, the district provided a list of songs to be performed at the concert. While the list does not include the three aforementioned songs, “Silent Night” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” are on the list, both of which have lyrics referring to Christ as savior.
   Also slated to be performed are “Let It Snow,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Hanukkah Song,” “Deck the Halls,” “Winter Fantasy” and “In This House Tonight.”
   After the board opted to refer the policy to committee, board President Lisa Kay Hartmann said she believed the songs’ inclusion or exclusion should not be a board decision.
   ”We have an existing policy,” Ms. Hartmann said. “We cannot direct (staff) to put the songs in because at that point we are running the schools versus ensuring that they’re well ran.”
   The board is scheduled to meet next on Dec. 11, more than a week after the concert.
   Cameron R. Morgan, board attorney, told the board and members of the public he continues to support the initial decision to remove the songs, based on a 2008 ruling involving the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education.
   He added, however, he would be confident of the district’s chances in court whether the songs were banned or not. He also noted he did not believe it would constitute an ethics violation if the board dictated song selection.
   ”I tend to view this as an overarching issue in the district, and I don’t know that it would be fully inappropriate from an ethical standpoint if the board were to take one action or another,” Mr. Morgan said.
   Officials first announced the removal of the songs in mid-October after being approached by parents.
   ”Our solicitors advised us that those songs should not be included in the holiday concert,” Dr. Bauer previously wrote in a letter to parents. “They also recommended that our secondary schools may include songs of a religious nature if they are, in fact, part of the school’s curriculum.”
   However, in a subsequent announcement, Dr. Bauer said she reconsidered after “reviewing additional legal considerations and advice on the matter” as well as the “sentiments of the community at large.”
   Residents presented passionate takes on both sides of the issue at last week’s meeting.
   ”As a religious leader and a lover of music, I know that song is a powerful way to forge and to express a spiritual connection,” said Rabbi Julie Pfau, of Temple B’nai Abraham in Bordentown. “Whether it’s being portrayed as something that isn’t a big deal or whether it’s portrayed as a profound expression of a powerful connection to God, asking children of other religious or of no religion to make the proclamation of Christ as messiah as part a public school curriculum is inappropriate.
   ”There’s no war on Christmas here,” she added, noting such devotion is appropriate in houses of worship and students’ homes, but not in the schools.
   Dominic Cuccia suggested if a parent was uncomfortable with certain music selections, they should have withheld their child, noting he previously had requested his child be removed from a showing of film about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
   ”I didn’t demand that they do not show it because it could be valuable to others,” Mr. Cuccia said. “Raising this music issue as a concern has singled out one group, and it’s divided this town. Please do not reward this action.
   ”This was a holiday show of inclusion and acceptance, and, unfortunately, some have used it as a tool of division instead of a teaching moment,” he added. “Furthermore, I do not know of anyone who has converted to Christianity because they heard kids singing ‘Joy to the World’ or ‘Silent Night.’”
   Apart from the issue itself, one of the parents who first brought the issue to school officials, criticized the apparent leaking of information.
   Melanie Kunkler said she initiated communication with Megan Geibel, MIS principal, expressing a concern about three specific songs Oct. 8. She later was advised Ms. Geibel would speak about the matter with Dr. Bauer, who, ultimately, removed the songs.
   A few days later, Ms. Kunkler said, other members of the public began discussing the matter on social media and making allegations about the identity who reached out to school officials.
   ”The post was wholly inaccurate, but the real issue here is why would anyone know anything about two families?” she said. “Why would that information be out on Facebook? How would this person know this private information to post on Facebook?
   ”There was much speculation about who was involved with my name being thrown around as one the complainers,” she added. “Eventually, because of the horrific lies being spread around, I spoke up and explained what actually happened.”
   She said due to the “leak,” her private life had been “turned upside down,” and personal information, including her home address, were published on social media.
   Ms. Kunkler and several others requested a formal investigation into the leak.
   ”My children are being discussed online as well,” she added. “It is absolutely abhorrent.”