Good Friday debate continues

School officials worry about absenteeism if they conduct classes on the Christian holiday.

Published February 20, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough school officials expect major problems if they hold classes on Good Friday, with large numbers of students and teachers missing school.

But that isn't happening in other Florida counties that go to school on Good Friday - from large school districts like Pinellas and Orange counties to smaller districts in Tallahassee and Panama City.

Pinellas gets elevated absentee rates on Good Friday, but classes don't have to shut down. Orange County officials say the numbers missing school on Good Friday are comparable to the absences on a typical Friday during that time of year.

And in Polk County, officials have heard few complaints about plans to hold school on Good Friday next year.

"If you have Good Friday and it winds up that it becomes impossible for the schools to function, then there becomes a legitimate basis in the community to close the schools," said Jonathan Ellis, a Jewish parent who is asking that all religions be treated equally in the Hillsborough school calendar. "We don't have that now."

In e-mails and phone calls, members of Hillsborough's Jewish community are vigorously objecting to a recommendation that Good Friday - and no other religious holiday - merits a day off in next year's calendar. Ellis sits on a divided committee that sent the recommendation to the School Board, which is set to discuss it today.

To a handful of school districts in Florida that hold school on Good Friday, it just isn't a big deal.

"We could not justify taking that time off," said Dianne Lovett, senior director for Orange County schools, which compared Good Friday absences to those on a typical Monday and Friday. "We cannot take a religious holiday just because it's a religious holiday."

Orange County ensures that students who miss school for religious reasons get excused absences. Similar policies are in place in Pinellas and Polk counties.

The Pinellas school system does not recognize religious holidays in its school calendar. On Good Friday last year, about 15 percent of students missed school, as did about 10 percent of teachers, according to the district's records. Those rates were double the average absentee rates last year.

In Polk County, officials don't anticipate problems in asking students to report to class next year on Good Friday. They are looking at a full school day because the holiday falls around the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. This year, Good Friday is a teacher workday.

"You have to make choices. It boils down to that," said Lendy Willis, who oversees the school calendar in Panama City's Bay County, where Good Friday is "a regular day" for public schools.

"The one year that we decided not to do Veterans Day, that was the year that we got a lot of complaints," he said.

Hillsborough administrators say their concerns about Good Friday are based on a survey of parents and district employees. More than half strongly supported closing school on Good Friday. But they weren't directly asked whether they would show up.

"Any given Friday, we have a high number of absentee teachers," said Debi Veranth, the Hillsborough administrator overseeing the school calendar. "When you add a holiday in, it compounds the concerns."

School Board member Jennifer Faliero found herself debating the calendar and Good Friday - sometimes loudly - with teachers at Bevis Elementary on Monday.

"In this country, the majority of the people are of the Christian faith and have accepted it as a day off," Faliero said. "If you begin to take things like that away, people believe that you are eroding what this country was founded upon, and that was freedom of religion."

Last year, the Hillsborough School Board was criticized as being antireligion after it adopted a calendar that eliminated days off coinciding with Good Friday, the Monday after Easter and the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The move followed a request for a Muslim day off. But when it drew an outcry, the School Board reversed itself.

Now, with the standalone day off for Good Friday, Hillsborough finds itself back where it started with religious holidays six years ago. Before that, the district typically scheduled spring break around the week before Easter and did not include days off for a Jewish holiday.

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