Evesham Board of Education member Rosemary Bernardi will not resign in light of anti-Semitic comments she made at a recent board meeting, saying doing so would be “the easy way out but it doesn’t solve the larger issue.”
At a special meeting on June 5, the board did, however, pass a resolution giving the board permission to use special counsel to launch an investigation into Bernardi’s comments. The board’s solicitor, Will Donio, was present for the original meeting when the alleged comments were made, making it inappropriate for him to investigate the matter, according to board president Sandy Student. The resolution passed with Bernardi’s abstention.
The investigation won’t begin until after the June 27 board meeting, following a separate motion made by board member Lisa Mansfield, after superintendent John Scavelli indicated he was “looking ahead” so the motion could not be “reversed at the June 27 meeting.”
According to Amy Houck, temporary solicitor at the meeting, the resolution only gave permission to use special counsel. It did not set parameters or a timeline, leaving room for the second motion. The motion passed with six “yes” votes two “no” votes and Bernardi’s abstention.
The issue originated when, during public comment at a May meeting, parents Lisa and Marc Cohen asked the board to consider changing the first day of school from Friday, Sept. 6 to Monday, Sept. 9 to avoid having their children be absent on the first day of school due to the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah.
“The board admitted an oversight,” Marc said in a letter to the editor.
“This was about a percentage of the students in Marlton missing the first day of school. Not a religious reason.”
The board voted to change the date during the May 23 meeting with five members voting “yes,” two “no” and one abstention due to absence. According to Cohen, Bernardi made numerous hurtful and anti-Semitic comments.
“We could start school on Thursday the first day of Rosh Hashanah — I don’t care. It is up to the parents to keep their kids home, all seven or eight Jews who live in our district,” Cohen said, quoting Bernardi in his letter.
“There are 4,000 kids in the district, and we have to change the start date for those few children.”
Additionally, Bernardi was heard at the end of the meeting saying, “anyone who would like to run for the board of education, there are three seats up and there are five Jews on the board,” according to Cohen.
The board allowed public comment for an hour and a half from residents and parents at last week’s meeting expressing their feelings about the alleged comments.
“After the meeting two weeks ago and all of your subsequent comments, the most discriminating one was regarding the quote, ‘there are three seats up in November and there are five Jews on the board,’” said Sue Wilder, a Jewish mother of three children in the district and attendee of the original meeting. “You stated this was a learning experience for you. I disagree. It should have been something you learned a long time ago, not while you represent the township, the school district, the children and taxpayers of Evesham.”
Wilder asked Bernardi to resign.
“This is one of the greatest actions of our townships, to speak publicly on the issue,” Rabbi Gary Gans of Congregation Beth Tikvah said. “I’m not looking for anyone to resign. In fact if I had a vote, I would have said no to the special investigator. I would have asked for sensitivity training for everyone.”
Parents expressed concern about the “inconvenience of the date change,” leaving them without daycare.
Deputy township manager Monica Vandenberg indicated during public comment that day camp would be extended a week and open to parents who need it.
At the end of the meeting, Bernardi was given the chance to make a statement after her late arrival. Bernardi explained she was unaware the calendar item would be changed or voted on, as it was only listed as “old business” on the agenda at the May 23 meeting.
“In expressing my frustration of our board’s oversight and not knowing the significance of the second day of Rosh Hashanah when planning this year’s school calendar, I failed to express my opinion in an appropriate manner,” Bernardi said. “I apologize to my fellow board members and the residents and hope my poor choice of words will be a teachable moment for all.”
Bernardi expressed her apology, stating she didn’t realize she had hurt people with her comments.
“I do apologize, it was never my intention to hurt anyone,” Bernardi said. “On my Facebook page I put a quote, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’ said by Maya Angelou.
“That night I did not make people feel good. I apologize for how I made people feel.”
Bernardi invited those she hurt to speak to her after the meeting and through email and phone calls at a later date.
“I think having dialogue with those out in the community was great and I got to hear what their concerns were. We need to be better with it,” Bernardi said. “I should know I represent those families. I represent every family. I need to be a better public servant.
“We need to know what our community needs are. We need to hear from our residents. It was great they came out tonight.”
The next board of education meeting will be held June 27 at 7 p.m. at Marlton Elementary School.