School calendar committee recommends Good Friday holiday

April 22nd, 2010 by –
A big obstacle may have been removed this week for Hillsborough school board members leaning toward a free day each Good Friday: Their lawyer says it’s legal.

The board’s calendar committee immediately took the advice to heart, voting Wednesday to recommend no classes next year on the Christian holy day.

“I think that makes sense,” school board member Candy Olson said after the vote. “I think this is more about kids not going to school in the spring.”

New district figures released Wednesday show nearly 42 percent of Hillsborough public students were absent Good Friday, which fell on April 2 this year, with 70 percent of high schoolers failing to show.

Absences on a typical Friday in the district hover around 7 percent, with a little more than 10 percent at the high schools.

“Parents are speaking in very big numbers,” said Melissa Erickson, president of the Hillsborough County PTA/PTSA Council and a member of the school calendar committee. “They want this day off.”

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia will weigh in on the recommendation and the school board could vote on the matter as soon as next month.

Two years ago, the board approved a so-called secular calendar over the calendar committees’ objections, making Good Friday a school day. Good Friday is important to all Christians, marking Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.

The change came in response to other religious groups that requested their holy days be recognized with free days, too. The district’s current secular calendar contains no free days based on religion.

School districts can close on days that coincide with religious holidays if the move is for non-religious reasons, though, such as a lack of attendance, attorney Tom Gonzalez told board members during their regular Tuesday meeting.

“For me, that pretty much sums it up,” said Jennifer Faliero, the only board member who voted against the secular calendar.

It’s not about religion anymore, she said, but about saving the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In 2008, the first year schools remained open on Good Friday, more than 58 percent of students were absent along with 398 bus drivers. The district also spent $62,230 to hire 990 substitute teachers that day.

Good Friday landed at the end of spring break in 2009 so it was a free day anyway. This year, also a school day, four in 10 students were absent, along with 183 bus drivers and enough teachers to require hiring 915 substitutes.

Luis Perez, president of the union representing bus drivers, said safety is another consideration when so many students, as well as regular teachers and staff, take off on Good Friday. One reason is drivers have to cover more routes.

Another issue: Some students watched movies and played Ping-Pong on Good Friday and some teachers even suggested students stay home. Teachers are not allowed to introduce new subject material or test students on religious holidays.

Also, Good Friday lands next year on one of the make-up days for the state-mandated Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. District administrators said shutting down schools that day would not have any impact on the test process.

That somewhat satisfied Olson, who had wanted to wait another year before making any changes to Good Friday.

“I think actually it’s not bad to have a day off after FCATs,” she said.

Ramzy Kilic, who represents the Muslim community, supports Good Friday as a free day. But he said he hopes school leaders some day will consider offering Muslim students their holy days off, too.

It was a sentiment shared by Jewish leader Jonathan Ellis.

“Two years ago, we voted to go ahead and give Good Friday off,” said Ellis, a calendar committee member. “The board voted no.

“There is a position in the Jewish community that reaches a very raw nerve,” he said. “We want our holidays as well as the Muslim holidays.”

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