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Williamsville school board tackles Columbus Day as educational experience

Some other area schools have changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Day, and now it is Williamsville's turn to tackle the topic.

The school board has put the name change on the agenda for a vote next month, but at least four of the nine board members have signaled their opposition to the proposal.

No matter how the vote goes, some board members are  treating it is a teaching moment.

Board members agreed the proposal had sparked a spirit of inquiry among students and the important thing was to validate other cultures.

"Changing a name doesn't change history," said Dr. Patricia Losito. "I think the biggest part of this is education. It's difficult to shove 21st century values and morals into 14th century."

Williamsville School Board President Toni L. Vazquez suggested changing the calendar after she saw a presentation by students in the Niagara Wheatfield School District, which last year changed the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. That presentation lists five reasons why Columbus should not be recognized.

The students said Columbus was guilty of atrocities, didn’t “discover” America and was not the first European to make it to the Western Hemisphere.

Italian-Americans said they do not dispute history, but the contributions of Columbus as a navigator and explorer who made several trips to the Western Hemisphere cannot be downplayed.

"I don't think it's the place of the School Board to get involved in changing the names of holidays," Trustee Ronald Shubert said last week. "I think we've beaten this subject to death, and I think it's time, hopefully, at the next meeting we can have a vote on this."

Trustees Teresa Leatherbarrow and Shawn P. Lemay also expressed opposition.

"I am concerned that this issue has sidetracked our focus here," Leatherbarrow said. "I want our focus to be back on the children. It does lead me to vote against the name change when we do have our vote, hopefully next month."

Lemay concurred.

"There's a lot of controversy to this, and I have to agree with my other colleagues here," Lemay said. "I really don't see that changing a name on a calendar does anything in the end result for our students or our children in their continued education."

Trustee Mary Bieger said the discussion had been healthy and important, and stressed the need to promote diversity in the schools, but did not indicate a preference.

"I don't want this issue to pit culture against culture because we're so lucky to have so many different cultures here to celebrate," she said.

Vice President Mark Mecca and Trustee Suzanne Van Sice also did not indicate how they would vote.

The board delayed its vote until  March because Vazquez and Trustee Michael Schmidt were absent from a meeting last week.

The discussion came after student representatives from each of the three high schools made a PowerPoint presentation on the issue to the School Board. After the students' presentation, the board heard from several speakers who represent both sides of the issue.

"Lionizing Columbus with his own holiday is to deny the truth," said Keith R. Burich, a professor of Native American history at Canisius College. "It's dishonest and even hypocritical. Acknowledging Columbus' genocidal actions does not impugn the Italians or their long and rich history."

But Peter LoJacono, a district parent and president of the Federation of Italian-American Societies of WNY, told the board Columbus Day is more about celebrating the achievements of all Italian-Americans, not just one man. The Friday after Thanksgiving has been designated as Native American Heritage Day, he added.

"We want to develop and celebrate with our Native American brothers and sisters as they deserve celebration and have their day," LoJacono said. "But we will never celebrate with them on Columbus Day."

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