Weekly Feature

2017-03-15 / Front Page

Williamsville schools lands 7-1 vote on Columbus Day

Holiday’s name stays on academic calendar
by KEATON T. DEPRIEST Associate Editor

The Williamsville School Board — after four months of consideration and contentious remarks from the board president — voted 7-1 to have Columbus Day remain on the academic calendar. It had been suggested that the district substitute the name Indigenous Peoples Day.

(See editorial on page four)

The vote, held during the March 7 meeting, followed remarks by several members of the community that stated their displeasure in eliminating Columbus Day from the district’s calendar. The district’s discussion of the matter initially began during the School Board’s October meeting, when President Toni Vazquez said she would like to have the board review the possibility of Indigenous Peoples Day.

According to www.History.com, Columbus Day is a “U.S. holiday that commemorates the landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World on October 12, 1492.”

The site further notes that the holiday was unofficially celebrated in a number of cities and states as early as the 18th century but did not become a federal holiday until 1937 under the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Columbus, whose actual name was Cristoforo Colombo, was a native of Genoa, Italy, although his voyage was sponsored by Spain.

Peter Lojacono, president of the Federation of Italian American Societies of Western New York, said he was grateful that the topic has united his organization, adding that to Italian-Americans, Columbus Day represents the advancement of their culture — stressing that Columbus should not be sanctified.

One of the speakers, Lee Butler, said he took exception to erasing Columbus Day from the academic calendar because it would be a loss of Italian-American culture in the district.

“You are doing a good job of sticking a finger in the eye of Italian-Americans,” Butler said.

Lojacono also said he wanted the district to encourage a fair and balanced approach when teaching students about both aspects of Columbus Day.

“Pitting one culture against another is not promoting diversity,” Lojacono said.

Prior to the board’s vote, Vazquez, who said her husband is of Native American descent, was the only member to offer her views on the subject as well as state her opinion on the direction she believed the board would be voting.

Other board members previously discussed their opinions during the Feb. 14 meeting when they agreed to not hold a vote without Vazquez, who had an excused absence from the session.

Vazquez on Tuesday began a nearly 10-minute address by saying she felt “a lot of board members are backing away from this idea due to pressures from the community and that they’ve grown very tired of this conversation.

“I respect the will of the board, but what I do not respect nor will I accept are the lies and innuendos that suggest gross inaccuracies portrayed as truth,” Vazquez said. “I will always stand up for the truth. It is clear that this board became uncomfortable when things were not so neat and orderly. I would be untrue to myself if I allowed my fellow board members to go unchecked.”

In the later half of her address, Vazquez said she felt the district’s conversation on the matter was dismissed easily, further questioning the validity of the holiday while noting Columbus’ atrocities against humanity.

“I wonder if these atrocities would have not been so ignored if these people were not brown people,” she said. “I cannot imagine advocating for ‘Adolf Hitler Day.’”

Seconds after those remarks, board member Suzanne Van Sice called the question on the motion, thereby interrupting Vazquez from continuing her dialogue.

While she first refused to cut her address short, Vazquez later agreed to hold a vote after being challenged on the rules of order by board members Teresa Leatherbarrow and Mary Bieger, who also serves as the panel’s parliamentarian.

Bieger said that due to Van Sice’s calling of the question, Robert’s Rules of Order — a set of guidelines and procedures used by boards in administering meetings — dictate that a vote on the motion had to be convened.

Vazquez was the lone supporter of substituting Indigenous Peoples Day for Columbus Day on the school calendar.

Following the vote, a motion made by Leatherbarrow seeking to hold a short recess was agreed to by the board.

Although the minutes leading to the vote on the matter were contentious, Superintendent Scott Martzloff said the discussions between the board, students and community have been positive and it was an important educational opportunity.

“Just because the name is not changed, I do think it was an excellent educational discussion that took place in the district,” he said.

In February, the Superintendent’s Inter-high Advisory Council presented suggestions to the public and the board on the Columbus Day matter.

The council’s suggestions included:

• Opening a survey to the public through the district’s website.

• Changing the curriculum to help elementary students understand the wrongdoings committed by Columbus.

• Having school curriculum put more emphasis on Native American Heritage Day, which is a federal holiday held on the day following each Thanksgiving.

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