All school religious holidays dropped
By LETITIA STEIN
Published February 28, 2007
TAMPA - The Hillsborough school calendar will not recognize any religious holidays next school year, but it will continue a traditional day off for students to attend the state fair.
Ending two years of debate that resonated nationally in the culture wars, the Hillsborough School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to adopt a secular calendar for 2007-08. It eliminates current days off coinciding with Good Friday, the Monday after Easter and the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
"It's what is fair, not what is politically correct," School Board member April Griffin said during the nearly two hours of discussion.
The new calendar also continues a tradition of closing school to support Hillsborough's agricultural heritage.
School Board members reversed an earlier plan to do away with Fair Day, a day off for most of the county to allow students to attend the state fair. Fair officials told the School Board they would grant free admission for students on Fair Day. The board agreed to keep the tradition for at least one more year.
As in the past, students in east Hillsborough will exchange the Fair Day holiday for a day off to celebrate the Strawberry Festival.
"I think we blind-sided the state fair," said School Board member Jennifer Faliero, who supported keeping the status quo on Fair Day and Strawberry Festival Day. "This isn't an easy decision because you are talking about cultures that have been around in this community."
In recent years, Hillsborough's school calendar has touched off a firestorm of debate. The School Board heard from hundreds of people - and Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor - when it tried to move to a secular calendar last year. The pressure prompted an about-face, and the religious holidays were restored.
This year, the calendar was no different. But the issues had changed.
Under a new state law, Hillsborough could start the school year no earlier than Aug. 20. The later start date limited the number of holidays possible in the fall semester, when schools were just able to squeeze in a full semester before winter break.
That left little support for continuing a Jewish holiday, or adding a day off on a Muslim holiday, during the tight fall semester.
For eight of the 15 people who signed up Tuesday night to speak about the calendar, the issue became one of fairness: All religions should get days off on holidays, or none should.
"As a group of high school students, we realized that having religions treated equally was more important than a day off school," said Claire Shimberg, a freshman at Hillsborough High who told the School Board about the conversation she had with her Jewish youth group.
Still, most of the feedback to School Board members were pleas for greater respect of Christian values. Almost all of the 1,900 e-mails sent featured similar wording, sent through a grassroots campaign organized by the conservative Florida Family Association. While many came from outside Hillsborough, several local parents made their sentiments clear Tuesday night.
"Please do not take our holidays away," Lisa Donini asked the School Board. "They help to bring us together, if just for a few days each year."
But School Board members already had their minds made up about religious holidays. The bulk of their debate centered on the question of continuing Fair Day.
A week ago, School Board members appeared to agree that the tradition had outlived its usefulness.
On Tuesday night, Fair Authority executive director Charles Pesano implored them to reconsider. He noted that about 63,000 people attend the fair on the day off school, compared with 20,000 on an average weekday. He placed the financial impact of the school holiday at $750,000.
"We think Fair Day is important to all of us," he said.
School Board members weren't sure. But several questioned their earlier discussion about granting the entire county a day off school for the Strawberry Festival, noting that many families would have trouble getting to the event in Plant City.
In the end, they decided that more study was needed on both agricultural holidays. In a 5-2 vote, Fair Day and Strawberry Festival were restored. Board members Candy Olson and April Griffin opposed the decision.
"If we had a Busch Gardens Day, and they called and said we're going to give you a discount, would we take a day off?" Olson said.
Hillsborough schools student calendar, 2007-08
Monday, Aug. 20: First day of school
Monday, Sept. 3: Labor Day
Friday, Oct. 19: Professional day for teachers
Wednesday, Nov. 21 to Friday, Nov. 23: Thanksgiving holiday
Friday, Dec. 21: Last day of school before winter break
Monday, Dec. 24 to Monday, Jan. 7: Winter break
Monday, Jan. 21: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Friday, Feb. 8: Fair Day for west Hillsborough
Monday, Feb. 18: Washington's Birthday
Monday, March 3: Strawberry Festival Day for east Hillsborough
Monday, April 7, to Friday, April 11: Spring break
Friday, May 2: Day off
Monday, May 26: Memorial Day
Wednesday, June 4: Last day of school