TAMPA — With a vote and perhaps even a prayer or two, the Hillsborough County School Board decided Tuesday to stick with its policy of keeping religion off the school calendar.
That means Good Friday will be a regular school day next April 2, despite the mass absenteeism that plagued the district on its first attempt last year at a secular calendar.
Several board members said there simply weren’t enough data to know whether last year’s 58 percent student absence rate on Good Friday — as well as the absence of about 40 percent of bus drivers — was a good predictor of what will happen next April 2. The holiday fell during spring break this year.
Jennifer Faliero registered the only dissenting vote on the seven-member board. She said the district couldn’t risk a recurrence of those mass absences, and the potential risk to students left waiting on street corners for buses that never arrived.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district would take steps to keep that from happening again, and would reconsider its calendar if it couldn’t ensure student safety.
But she said she was concerned by reports that teachers and bus drivers told students to stay home last year.
That’s what parent Jonathan Ellis told the board that his children heard from teachers.
“My children came back and told me teachers said there was no reason to attend school Friday,” he said. “ 'You’ll be watching videos, don’t attend, you’ll be wasting everyone’s time.’ ”
Elia said that she will discuss that situation with the teachers’ and staff unions, calling such behavior “ethically untenable.”
Luis Perez, president of the union that represents bus drivers, said he would be giving the same message to his members.
“Everyone has personal days and professional days they can use with proper notification,” he said. “But if it’s a scheduled day, they need to come to work.”
Assistant superintendent Lewis Brinson said contract negotiations would likely focus on defining exactly what “proper notification” means, rather than forbidding employees to take a holiday for religious reasons.
Some in the crowded board room said they saw nothing wrong with declaring holidays for religious purposes.
“Why should we not have holidays honoring Jesus, the Christ of America?” asked Don Tanner, pastor at the Maranatha Church of God in Ruskin. “Christianity is historically embedded in the cultural roots of our land.”
Representatives of other faiths said such a position might be true, but it wasn’t fair or legal for public schools to favor one group over others.
“The majority of the population in the Hillsborough County schools is Christian,” said Rabbi Richard Birnholtz of Congregation Schaarai Zedek. “That fact should not dictate the school calendar.”
Members of the district calendar committee said their hands were tied by union contracts and state dictates, including one that has scheduled the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test during a week that includes Good Friday in 2011. Elia said she planned to ask the state for an extra FCAT makeup day that year, to ensure all students are treated fairly.
But member Candy Olson said the district would also have to do a better job of conveying its attendance expectations to students, families and the staff.
“I have to take it on faith that we’ll communicate it better if I support this resolution,” she said.