TAMPA — Three years ago, an 11-year-old student addressed the Hillsborough School Board in a hesitant voice. Rahma Elmohd said she would "like it a lot" if the school calendar included a Muslim holiday.
Her gentle request got lost in a fracas that carries on today. The school calendar has become a battleground for a values war that few students can understand.
This spring, when classes were held on Good Friday for the first time in years, predictions of high absenteeism among district employees came full circle when about 60 percent of students took the day off.
The debate resumes this week as a district committee meets at Jefferson High School to recommend calendars for 2009-10 and 2010-11. Proposals to eliminate days off for religious holidays — and keep a day off for students to attend the Florida State Fair and the Strawberry Festival — remain as divisive as ever.
This school year, Good Friday falls during spring break. But the Christian holiday would fall on a school day in 2009-10. The School Board has tentatively approved holding classes again, with an early release day coinciding with the holiday.
"Be prepared for humongous absentee rates," Caroline Collier, a South Tampa mother, said at a meeting of the district's calendar committee last month.
But Jean Clements, president of the local teachers union, noted that shopping malls, not churches, were filled on Good Friday last spring. "That was a skip day for the entire county," she said.
Representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities are treading gingerly. A Muslim liaison informed the committee of the dates of its holidays. A Jewish parent asked that major religions be treated similarly.
"I don't think you want to be in a position where certain religions have certain holidays that are recognized," said Jonathan Ellis, a parent on the committee who is active in the Tampa Jewish Community Center & Federation. "Other religions, you wind up having the government saying, 'No, we're not going to recognize your holiday.' "
Others felt Christian values were getting short shrift.
"If we're going to talk about all the religions, then where are the Christians and the Catholics?" asked Luis Perez, president of the union representing Hillsborough's bus drivers and other blue-collar workers. "Have they been invited into these meetings?"
This spring, about 40 percent of bus drivers took off on Good Friday — a move that smacked of a protest to some. The district had to cancel scores of bus routes, contributing to the massive student absenteeism. Perez cautioned that it could happen again.
School Board members, who ultimately approve the calendar, also have differing views. Carol Kurdell said she would stick with the secular calendar.
"It was just the first year, and I think people wanted to send a message," Kurdell said. "You have to focus on why we are in business. We're in the business of academics."
To Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero, this spring proved Good Friday can't be a school day.
"We have enough data to warrant giving that day off," she said.
Students may care less about religious holidays than another change coming next year. The calendar would push their semester exams back until after the winter holidays. School officials say they have no choice because the Legislature has mandated that schools start later.
And the traditional days off to celebrate the county's agricultural heritage may be in trouble. Students in most of the county have a day off to attend the Florida State Fair, while Plant City schools take off during the Florida Strawberry Festival.
But next school year, the traditional east Hillsborough holiday falls the day before state testing starts. The district could hold classes — potentially alienating the community — or cancel them and risk students doing poorly on the high-stakes tests.
"As much as I love the fair, I'd hate to see a third-grade kid get retained because he's tired and all sugared up from the night before," said Sam Whitten, Hillsborough's assessment supervisor.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.