Bellview Elementary School Principal Michelle Zundel will bring back a giving tree at the school today, reversing a controversial decision that upset hundreds of community members.
“The issue about whether to have a tree or not to have a tree is settled,” Zundell said at a community meeting Tuesday night. “We will have a tree.”
Zundel removed the tree from the school’s lobby during Thanksgiving break, after a family complained that it was a religious symbol. The move upset dozens of Bellview parents and hundreds of community members who said the tree was not a religious symbol, but a way to celebrate the holiday season and help those in need.
Several of the 150 people in the Bellview gymnasium clapped when Zundel made the announcement at the beginning of the meeting.
She said she changed her mind about the tree, which had tags requesting gifts for needy children at the school, after hearing from hundreds of people nationwide who complained about the removal.
“The decision to bring back the tree was made today,” Zundel said at the meeting. “The reason was because of the incredible input.”
Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said the district heard from more than 300 people who were upset that the tree had been removed. The incident, first reported in the Daily Tidings last week, made national news this week.
“It probably was not the right decision and that’s why we reinstated it,” Di Chiro said at the meeting. “We’re not going to stick with a bad decision just because it was a bad decision.”
Zundel said she replaced the 5-foot artificial tree with two snowmen last week, because it offended a few students who do not celebrate Christmas. Even in doing so, Zundel acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that holiday trees are not religious symbols and that they can legally be displayed in schools.
Zundel said she would contact the family that originally complained about the tree and try to come up with a way for the children in the family to feel comfortable with having a tree at the school.
After Zundel announced that she would bring back the tree, she asked the audience members to gather into small groups to discuss how the tree should look.
Some community members felt that the tree should look like a traditional Christmas tree, while others thought it should include various religious symbols, in order to represent all religious groups at the school.
Zundel said the tree would be an evergreen tree, but the dÃ©cor on it would be decided Wednesday. It’s possible multiple evergreen trees would be placed at the school, she said.
â€œI may need a tree lot to open up so that I can get the trees,â€ she said.
A few audience members said they felt that their voices were not heard at the meeting, due to the small-group format.
â€œI feel this is the way (Zundel) avoids responding to questions and I find that very disappointing,â€ said Rod Petrone, a parent of a Bellview student. â€œI want to know: Whatâ€™s to stop her from changing it back again?â€
Di Chiro said the small group format was designed to give everyone a chance to discuss the issue without running out of time.
â€œIf we give everybody a chance to talk (before the entire group), weâ€™ll be here very late,â€ she said.
Di Chiro plans to work with school administrators this spring to develop a district-wide policy on holiday dÃ©cor, she said. She encouraged community members who were interested in being part of that discussion to leave their contact information with school officials at the meeting.
At the end of the meeting, representatives from each group gave a brief presentation on the discussion in their group.
Serena Robinson and Allison Hamik, the giving tree organizers, said they would volunteer to help decorate the tree early Wednesday morning, so that it would be up before children arrived.
â€œOur plan is to have it up before the first kid walks through the door,â€ Robinson said Tuesday evening. â€œThatâ€™s the plan.â€
All of the children who had tags on the tree will receive gifts from donors, but Robinson and Hamik are still requesting donations to purchase food for a holiday meal for the childrenâ€™s families, they said.
â€œItâ€™s a little sad that this controversy has overshadowed the project,â€ Robinson said. â€œBut this project is still happening.â€