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Schools rethink holidays

By LETITIA STEIN
Published February 21, 2007


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TAMPA - The Hillsborough County School Board appears ready to embrace a calendar with no days off for religious holidays, including Good Friday.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia and a strong majority of School Board members said Tuesday they are comfortable with a 2007-08 school calendar that eliminates days off coinciding with Good Friday, the Monday after Easter and the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.

School Board members also said the time may have come to end Fair Day, a traditional day off that allows students in most of the county to attend the state fair.

A final vote is scheduled for Tuesday, which means the community has time to weigh in. Last year, the approval of a secular calendar sparked an outcry, leading a majority of the School Board to reverse its vote and restore the religious holidays.

Times may have changed.

"I hope that we matured," said School Board chairman Jack Lamb, recalling his embarrassment at a controversy that aired nationally on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. "In the United States, we shouldn't be pointing fingers and calling names."

As School Board members went around the table Tuesday sharing their views at a workshop, a Jewish and a Muslim parent exchanged small smiles. Both served on a committee that recommended Good Friday as the only religious holiday in next year's calendar.

While they were pleased that most School Board members seem willing to treat the major religions equally, others see a secular calendar as a big mistake.

"Common sense tells you this is not going to sit well with both Christians and people who looked at that time as a traditional time to be with family," said David Caton, executive director of the Florida Family Association, which lobbied hard against the secular calendar last year.

Like Caton, many of the people who sent more than 3,500 e-mails on the calendar issue last year blamed Muslims for taking away established Judeo-Christian holidays. The move to a secular calendar followed a request by the Muslim community for a day off for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

This year's debate was complicated by a new state law requiring schools to start no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day. Hillsborough wants to squeeze in a full semester between Aug. 20 and the start of winter break on Dec. 24.

This limits the number of days students can take off in the fall, which includes the major Jewish and Muslim holidays.

But the School Board has choices to make in the spring semester, when there are no such restrictions on Good Friday or the traditional day for the fair.

On Fair Day, School Board members seemed to agree that the break has outlived its time.

"I absolutely believe that it is a thing of the past," said School Board member Jennifer Faliero.

Board members instead endorsed giving students a day off to recognize Washington's Birthday, which falls during the fair's run. They also would allow the entire county a holiday for the Strawberry Festival, currently observed only in east Hillsborough.

Charles Pesano, executive director of the Fair Authority, urged the school district to continue the Fair Day tradition and consider the learning opportunities it holds for students.

As for Good Friday, School Board members know they are walking into a potential controversy.

Last year, School Board member Susan Valdes was among those who changed her mind about eliminating religious holidays after hearing from the community. This year, she believes school officials will better communicate their reasons.

"I strongly feel that we cannot just have one day, one religious holiday, on our calendar," she said. "We have other faiths that also traditionally have had holidays."

The lack of hard data about how many teachers and students would miss school for religious reasons on Good Friday concerned School Board members.

"We don't really know how attendance will be that day," Elia said. School policies allow students and employees to take religious holidays off without penalty.

Elia said she will review the fair issue and ask about financial incentives for students who attend. She plans to make final recommendations by Friday.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 21, 2007, 00:29:04]


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