Disputed calendar gives all Hillsborough students off for fair, Strawberry Festival

Students from Steinbrenner and Cambridge Christian high schools take advantage of the annual February Fair Day to enjoy the Midway at the Florida State Fair. All public school students in Hillsborough will have free days next year for both Fair Day and the Strawberry Festival. [Times files (2017)]
Students from Steinbrenner and Cambridge Christian high schools take advantage of the annual February Fair Day to enjoy the Midway at the Florida State Fair. All public school students in Hillsborough will have free days next year for both Fair Day and the Strawberry Festival. [Times files (2017)]
Published March 8 2018
Updated March 8 2018

TAMPA — Two festival days off — one for the Florida State Fair, one for the Strawberry Festival.

Not one or the other, but both.

Some people might have read right over that on the proposed calendar for the Hillsborough County Public Schools, but not School Board member April Griffin.

"I cannot support our students being out for two days of festivals. We’re talking about student learning. We’re talking about 90 by 20," Griffin told the board, in a reference to the stated goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the year 2020.

"Now we’re having two days off for festivals. I can’t support that. Students being in school is important."

Board members found a lot to criticize when the calendars for the next two school years came up for a vote at their Tuesday meeting:

In addition to the two festival days, classes extend past Memorial Day.

The 2018-19 school year begins on a Friday — Aug. 10.

And, in the 2019-2020 year, there would be three days off for Thanksgiving — not the customary full week.

"The district made a commitment to our students and parents to have semester exams prior to winter break," director of administration Tanly Cabrera told the board.

That’s one reason for the compressed first semester. Another is a new bell schedule, which shortens the high school day by 35 minutes. Some of that time will be made up between classes.

Nevertheless, "we’re going to be tighter next year in reference to our high school hours," said Leslie Granich, instructional leadership director for secondary grades.

The opposite problem presents itself in the spring, which explains the separate issue of the two days off for festivals.

Last year’s sweeping state education law, House Bill 7069, establishes schedules for year-end exams that, for the most part, begin on May 1.

That timetable stretches the spring semester over a longer period of time, which is why school will extend beyond Memorial Day. This year it ends on May 25, three days before Memorial Day.

The district wants the full year to add up to 180 days, and no more.

"It’s a financial issue, as well," said district superintendent Jeff Eakins. "Every day we add to the calendar is about $6 million to $7 million onto our budget. In the first half of the year we are honoring students" by ending before winter break.

For the second semester, "the very head-scratching part of this calendar is that we are looking for days to take off." Eakins acknowledged, "it’s problematic, no matter which way you look at it."

They came up with the State Fair and Strawberry Festival days because they reasoned that many students would take time off for those events, anyway. Board member Lynn Gray argued in support of the time off, to learn about and celebrate local history and agriculture.

Member Cindy Stuart was unhappy with the whole process.

House Bill 7069 was signed into law last summer, she said, and families are just now getting a look at these abrupt changes in March.

"I’m just kind of at a loss of words on this," she told Cabrera.

Still, she found plenty to say.

"The changes that we’re making are really going to throw families off. I think we are going to have massive absenteeism. We could have notified them a lot earlier than we are going to notify them."

Member Melissa Snively, who got a lot of pushback when she asked Facebook followers what they thought of the proposed calendar, asked what would happen if district leaders just gave the exams when they wanted to.

They’d be breaking the law, Eakins told her. Among other things, the schedule makes sure a student in Hillsborough does not see test questions before a friend in Pasco County does.

Member Susan Valdes was concerned about the shortened Thanksgiving week in 2019. Doesn’t the district save money on fuel and other items by shutting down for that whole week?

"In times of financial difficulties, if we’re able to obtain savings through our calendar and still meet the letter of the law, I think that would be the win-win situation for us," she said.

There were complaints at Tuesday’s meeting about the notation on the calendar that schools will be closed on Good Friday.

Years ago, that was a highly charged issue, as the Christian holiday was treated differently than those observed by other religious groups.

But when the school was open on Good Friday one year, bus drivers were absent in droves. Officials determined it was unsafe to have children standing on the corners without a ride.

Board members agreed that, even though the day off is Good Friday, they could get off the hook by calling it a "non-student day."

In the end, the board voted 5-2 to pass the 2018-19 calendar, with Griffin and Snively dissenting, and left the 2019-20 calendar for later.

Before they voted, Griffin asked if they were still approving two days off for festivals.

The answer: They did.

• • •

2018 - 2019 Hillsborough Public Schools Calendar highlights

Friday, Aug. 10 School begins

Monday, Nov. 12 Veterans Day

Nov. 19-23 Thanksgiving Break

Dec. 24-Jan. 7 Winter Break. Fall exams will have concluded.

Monday, Jan. 21 Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.

Friday, Feb. 8 State Fair day, all students off.

Monday, Feb. 18 Presidents Day

Monday, Mar. 4 Strawberry Festival Day, all students off

March 18-25 Spring Break

Apr. 19 Good Friday (officially called "non student day")

May 27 Memorial Day

May 31 School ends.

Source: Hillsborough County School District

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.