TAMPA — School will not be held for students next year when Good Friday rolls around, the Hillsborough County School Board decided Tuesday.
By a 5-2 vote, the board took the advice of a calendar committee and district staff to cancel classes that day, following two years of high absences and controversy.
But members expressed little confidence that the board's troubles over faith have passed.
"We can talk about this not being about religion," said member April Griffin, who voted against the measure along with Carol Kurdell. "But it is about religion."
The board has wrestled with the issue since 2005, when it first discussed adopting a "secular calendar" that keeps school in session during most religious holidays. The board finally did so in 2008.
According to some people, that policy has been working fine.
Last month, 42 percent of students and 19 percent of bus drivers stayed home on Good Friday — significantly lower than the absences in 2008, when 58 percent of students and about 38 percent of drivers were absent.
Under a district policy, students who miss school for religious reasons can make up missed work.
But members of a district calendar committee said little learning took place on Good Friday. Last month, a majority recommended a calendar that would declare it a "non-student day" next time, on April 22. Staff members are still expected to show up unless they take a personal day.
"We feel it is the best instructional calendar to advance student achievement," said Nick Whitman, executive director of the teachers' union.
Luis Perez, director of the union that represents bus drivers, said it wasn't safe to hold classes if many regular drivers were taking the day off.
"My fear is if more people choose to stay home next year, we risk having something dreadful happening," said board member Candy Olson.
"To me it's not a religious holiday issue," said chairwoman Susan Valdes. "It's a safety issue, it's a fiscal responsibility issue."
Board attorney Tom Gonzalez said the district cannot legally cancel school for religious reasons, but can for practical ones, including the likelihood of mass absences.
But that position did nothing to dissuade members of the public from lining up Tuesday in an effort to influence the vote.
"Why is the Bible not allowed in our schools?" asked Cita Rodriguez of Tampa, speaking through a translator. "A majority of Christians have asked that Good Friday be given off out of respect for God."
Mike Pheneger of Tampa said religious leaders have tried to hijack the issue for their own purposes.
"Because they want Good Friday recognized as a holiday, a Christian holiday," he said. "(Doing so) is an inappropriate action for you as constitutional officers of the United States."
Others said the current situation — a de facto holiday with high absences, with some students heading not to church but the beach — is unfair to other religious groups.
Jillian Boyar, a high school student from Brandon, said she has to make up schoolwork when she takes a day off to observe Jewish holidays. But many teachers just show films on Good Friday.
"It's unfair for me to have to make up school work when others do not," she said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.