Hillsborough School Board refuses to cancel Good Friday classes

TAMPA — Try again.

That, in essence, was the Hills­borough County School Board's response Tuesday to a plan to cancel classes on Good Friday next year due to high absences.

The School Board voted 4-2 to reject changes to a proposed calendar that would have turned the holiday into a "nonstudent day."

The move leaves a contentious issue unsettled until at least May 18, when the board is expected to consider additional calendar options — all of which will require members to decide once again whether to hold classes on Good Friday.

Since 2008, the district has wrestled with a decision to maintain what some have called a "secular calendar," holding classes on religious days but allowing absent students to make up missed work.

"I think we were on the right track," said member Carol Kurdell, explaining her vote to keep school open. "I don't take to being bullied by students or teachers."

Last month, 42 percent of students and 19 percent of bus drivers in the 190,000-student district stayed home on Good Friday.

That was an improvement over 2008, when 58 percent of students and 38 percent of drivers were absent. In both cases the board heard reports of students going to the beach, or teachers telling students not to show up.

Members Doretha Edgecomb and Candy Olson voted in favor of the proposed calendar, while April Griffin and Susan Valdes opposed it.

Member Jennifer Faliero said she opposed the idea of classes on Good Friday but voted against the calendar because teachers would still be required to work.

"It just doesn't make sense to even call it a teacher conference day when it's pretty clear people are not even going to show up," Faliero said. "Shut the school system down for Good Friday."

Board attorney Tom Gonzalez said the district could not legally cancel classes for religious reasons, but could do so for the practical reason that high absences make for an ineffective day.

Nevertheless, religious leaders and citizens once again took to the podium in an effort to sway the vote.

Terry Kemple, president of the Christian-based Community Issues Council and a School Board candidate in District 6, said the board should cancel classes on Good Friday rather than waste tax dollars to run half-empty schools.

If high absences on Jewish or Muslim holidays create a similar "fiasco," he said, the board should cancel classes on those days, too.

"We are going to be rewarding non-attendance," countered Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski of Tampa. "I think that would send absolutely the wrong kind of message."

As it stands now, a tentative calendar calls for regular classes to be held next Good Friday, but also contains potential conflicts with state testing dates. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the board it needed to offer a viable alternative.

"The (calendar) that makes sense with an instructional focus is the one in front of you," she said. "If you're not going to vote for it, it's appropriate that you give us some guidance on what you expect."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hillsborough School Board refuses to cancel Good Friday classes 05/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 1:17am]

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