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Drop religious holidays in Hillsborough schools, panel says

TAMPA — A committee of Hillsborough parents, teachers and educators agreed Wednesday to propose an "academic" calendar for next year with no religious holidays, including Good Friday.

The group was not discouraged by the mass skip day that marked last spring's attempt to hold classes on Good Friday for the first time in years. Several blamed misleading news reports, coupled with mixed messages from schools, for keeping almost 60 percent of students home.

"It was a media circus more than anything," said Tammy Cummings, president of the Hillsborough County Council PTA/PTSA, noting that parents were afraid to send children to school after reports of mass absenteeism by employees.

"People hate change," Cummings said, predicting that the numbers in five years would look nothing like last year's. "It takes time to get that mind-set changed."

But the leader of the union representing bus drivers predicted another disaster. Last year, about 40 percent of drivers took the day off, canceling scores of bus routes around the county.

"Be prepared for the same thing to happen again," said Luis Perez, president of the union of blue-collar employees.

Others felt strongly that schools should treat all religions equally. There used to be a Jewish holiday on the school calendar, and that community would like equal treatment. A Jewish father noted that schools in Pinellas and Orange counties hold classes without problem on Good Friday.

"It's only fair," said Leigh Crosson, a teacher at Bevis Elementary, noting that the Muslim community also has requested a holiday in the past. "If we give one for this, then we need to give one for that and for that."

Good Friday isn't an issue this school year, because it falls during spring break. The recommendation to hold classes on Good Friday in 2009-10 and 2010-11 must be vetted by Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. The School Board has final say, probably in January.

The calendar committee proposed using the next year to get the word out to parents that they should expect a normal school day on Good Friday. Although an early-release day tentatively fell on Good Friday on a 2009-10 calendar approved last year, school officials said that is likely to change under a new contract with the teachers union.

Parents on the committee were most critical of a proposal to continue the Fair Day tradition. Most students get a day off in February to attend the state fair. East Hillsborough schools observe an alternate holiday to attend the Strawberry Festival.

"Fair Day is a complete waste," said Caroline Collier, a South Tampa mother, noting it was the main complaint she heard from parents about the calendar.

School officials had worried about starting Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests the day after the Strawberry Festival holiday, but they have received permission to delay testing one day at the affected schools.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Recommended student calendar 2009-2010

Aug. 25: School starts

Sept. 7: Labor Day

Oct. 23: Teacher work day; no school for students

Nov. 11: Veterans Day

Nov. 25-27: Thanksgiving holiday

Dec. 21-Jan. 1: Winter holiday

Jan. 18: Martin Luther King Day

Jan. 19: Teacher work day; no school for students

Feb. 5: Fair Day (most schools)

Feb. 15: Presidents Day

March 8: Strawberry Festival Day (parts of east Hillsborough)

April 5-9: Spring break

April 30: No school

May 31: Memorial Day

June 10: Last day of school

Drop religious holidays in Hillsborough schools, panel says 11/19/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 23, 2008 7:46am]
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