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Fair jostles for a spot on calendar
The School Board will vote today on holidays for students.
By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 11, 2007
TAMPA - The Florida State Fair is rolling out a red carpet to Hillsborough schools, hoping to preserve a long-standing day off so students can attend the fair.
The sales pitch? Free admission for students! Entertainment at the amphitheater! Exhibit space worth $50,000!
"Heck, I even got a holiday card from the executive director," School Board member Candy Olson said of the lobbying.
The VIP treatment may keep Fair Day on the school calendar, which board members will vote on today.
Last year, it was almost canceled, as board members questioned whether it had outlived its educational use. But they gave it a pass for another year.
"It was a little bit of a wakeup call," said Chuck Pesano, executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority. "Most people in the county have no idea of all the things that we do to support education."
Starting this year, students get in for free on Fair Day. Board members had complained about the cost. Students can attend the Ford Ampitheatre, where student performances and educational speakers are in the works.
April Griffin still is not convinced. A board member and mother of two, she took her children to the fair last year to conduct research.
"I didn't see kids at different exhibits," Griffin said. "I saw kids on the midway, riding rides, eating junk food and having a good time."
While she has a hard time justifying a day off for the fair and not other events, such as religious holidays, Griffin has not yet decided how to vote.
To convince doubters like Griffin, Pesano touts a 10-page brochure that highlights the dollar value of donated exhibit space, scholarships and other educational programs.
He notes year-round activities like Cracker Country, an exhibit that shows what rural life in Florida was like during the 1890s and is visited by 20,000 elementary students each year.
"The fair is a lot more than just rides and food," said Vince Caruso, marketing director. "It's a huge educational opportunity."
The school holiday is a big pay day for the Fair Authority. Last year, fair officials estimated that the holiday's financial impact was $750,000. Those proceeds help pay for educational activities throughout the year, they said.
Fair Day is just one of several traditional holidays to come under scrutiny in recent years. After extended controversy, Hillsborough this year stopped scheduling days off that coincided with major Jewish and Christian holidays.
School officials propose to continue with the secular approach - they call it an "academic" calendar - next year and on the tentative 2009-10 calendar.
In the schedule modeled after this year's calendar, Good Friday and the start of Passover fall during spring break during 2008-09. The following year, there would be school on Good Friday.
School officials recommend keeping Fair Day and an alternate holiday observed by students in east Hillsborough during the Florida Strawberry Festival. The School Board has the final say Tuesday.
The fair may have benefited from its spring timing. Squeezing in additional days off is harder to do in the fall semester because of a new law that prevents Florida schools from starting sooner than two weeks before Labor Day.
So far, Hillsborough has managed to keep first-semester exams before winter break - honoring the wishes of students.
But officials don't see how to do that in 2009-10, when school may not begin before Aug. 24.
That year, to avoid short-changing the first semester, a calendar advisory committee recommended delaying exams until after the winter break.
Board members are likely to struggle over the new calendar constraints.
"We don't do this lightly," said Debi Veranth, the administrator overseeing the calendar. "Until the state makes a change in the law, we can't start school any earlier."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.