TAMPA — The school holiday wars may be returning to Hillsborough County.
The student calendar for 2009-10 will come up for a School Board vote today, and Good Friday is slated to be a normal school day next April 2.
Area pastors, and at least one board member, say they're determined to prevent a repeat of what happened last year, when more than 60 percent of students — and a sizable percentage of the district's bus drivers — stayed home.
"This is a day that people are going to take off, no matter what we do," said board member Jennifer Faliero. "So how can you force them to come to school and have a safe, productive day? You can't."
The district got a reprieve on the issue this year, since the holiday fell during spring break.
But it boiled over last year after the district removed all religious holidays from the calendar. About 40 percent of bus drivers took the day off and more than 100,000 students joined them.
That calendar was an attempt at compromise, after members of some religious groups said they weren't being treated fairly. Officials said it was preferable to violating U.S. Supreme Court rulings, which bar schools from either advancing or inhibiting religion, and require that holidays have a "secular purpose."
Faliero said Good Friday is rapidly becoming a secular holiday like Christmas, and it's only practical to keep schools closed if large numbers of students and staff are planning to stay away.
"When you are uncertain about whether buses are going to come or not come, then you're putting kids in jeopardy," said Terry Kemple, president of the Community Issues Council, a Valrico-based Christian organization. "If even one student gets hurt, then it will be the responsibility of every School Board member that votes for that."
He questioned the motives of the district in making Good Friday a school day again next year, while neighboring districts plan to make it part of spring break.
"My personal feeling is our School Board is trying to make a point, (saying) 'This is what we can do,' " Kemple said.
A member of the district's calendar committee said that was the farthest thing from the truth.
"You're given a set of rules," said PTA president Tammy Cummings, describing the restrictions the panel faces.
Some days already have been negotiated with the teachers' union for training, and the district was forced to schedule exams after the winter holidays due to the late start of the school year, she said. That starting date is set by the state Legislature.
Even as Cummings' committee was making its calendar recommendation last fall, there were signs of discord.
Board member Carol Kurdell said she was fully behind it.
"You have to focus on why we are in business," she said. "We are in the business of academics."
But bus union president Luis Perez predicted that drivers wouldn't be happy.
"Be prepared for the same thing to happen again," he said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.