tampabay.com

Only Good Friday makes the cut

The proposed school calendar recognizes no other religious holidays.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published February 7, 2007


TAMPA - Good Friday is the only religious holiday recognized in the latest version of Hillsborough's controversial school calendar.

But the idea of treating Christians differently from Jews and Muslims divided the committee of teachers, parents and school administrators who are making calendar recommendations.

"I think that opens a can of worms," said Leigh Crosson, a teacher at Bevis Elementary in east Hillsborough, during the committee meeting Tuesday.

It marked a reversal of the group's stance last fall, when members proposed a calendar recognizing no religious holidays.

Last year, the School Board passed a similarly secular calendar - and came under a firestorm of criticism for being antireligious. Under a national spotlight, the board backpedaled and restored existing Christian and Jewish holidays.

Once again, the School Board has final approval of the calendar for the coming school year - and whether religion belongs in it.

After a narrow committee vote to make Good Friday a school holiday, a Jewish parent made a final request that all major religions be treated equally. His plea failed in a 9-7 vote.

Teachers and parents generally supported his proposal, while school district administrators largely opposed it.

The proposal would have reopened the entire calendar to reconsideration, raising problems for the short fall semester.

"I cannot believe that you have county employees voting not to treat some of the religious holidays of major religions equally," said Jonathan Ellis, a father of three students and chairman of a Jewish community relations council.

But the decision wasn't that simple, said Debi Veranth, the administrator who led the committee discussion. She supported a Good Friday holiday, fearing high absenteeism of teachers and students.

However, another school official pointed out that there's no data on the issue, because Good Friday has long been a holiday.

Veranth said the calendar debate was complicated this year by a new state law pushing back the start of school to no earlier than Aug. 20. She voted against reopening the entire calendar to consider equal treatment for Jewish and Muslim holidays.

Parents said in a survey that they wanted semester exams before winter break. Veranth said their wishes couldn't be met with more fall holidays.

"It really was not a matter of wanting to treat anyone or any religion differently," Veranth said. "It was a matter of it is an instructional calendar."

School Board member April Griffin attended the committee meeting to hear the debate. She found herself biting her tongue.

"I thought, 'How can you vote against treating them equally?' " she said, questioning whether it was constitutional to recognize only Good Friday. She wants all major religions represented.

The proposed calendar drops an existing day off from school that fell this year on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. It eliminates a traditional holiday on the Monday after Easter.

But a holiday is gained for Washington's Birthday, which proved popular as a proposed day off from school in the survey of parents and teachers.

Neither Jewish holidays nor Muslim holidays attracted such a high level of support in the survey. But Joan Mulrennan Zaki, a Muslim parent and member of the calendar committee, remained optimistic.

"I think it's just a matter of time before all three major religions have some recognition on the calendar," she said, adding: "God willing."

Letitia Stein can be reached at 813 226-3400 or lstein@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

 

Proposed calendar for Hillsborough children

Aug. 20: First day of school.

Sept. 3: Labor Day.

Oct. 19: Professional day for teachers.

Nov. 21-23: Thanksgiving break.

Dec. 24-Jan. 7: Winter break.

Jan. 21: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Feb. 8: Fair Day (west Hillsborough only).

Feb. 18: Washington's Birthday.

March 3: Strawberry Festival Day (east Hillsborough only).

March 21: Good Friday.

April 7-11: Spring break.

May 2: No school.

May 26: Memorial Day.

June 5: Tentative last day - could change if school year is reduced from 184 days.