TAMPA — After most Hillsborough students skipped classes on Good Friday, superintendent MaryEllen Elia initially used religion to explain the huge disparities in absentee rates between schools.
"Schools reflect their particular community. You may have in a community a particular religious affiliation that is strong," Elia said.
She rejected the idea that poor communication played a significant role in the attendance mess. "I really don't think that's a reason," she said.
But there were big problems.
Some parents received automated phone calls from their principal explaining the situation at their school. Others were supposed to, but the messages were never sent out because of technical issues.
Elia said she only learned of the problems Monday. School officials still don't know how many schools failed to get their calls out. While concerned about the malfunction, Elia noted that "we had other communication opportunities."
And she said she was okay with the district offering students excused absences regardless of whether religion was their reason for missing school.
"Your child may take the day off without penalty," read a script given to principals that said nothing about religious observances. "But if you don't notify us, we will treat it as an unexcused absence.''
On all other days, the district has strict policies on which absences are excused. High school students are especially careful about missing school because perfect attendance means they can skip semester exams.
School Board member Susan Valdes laughed when asked whether the 80 percent of high school students who missed classes Friday were taking part in religious observances.
"I wish I would have taken a drive out to Clearwater Beach," said Valdes, who was concerned about allowing a day off without concern for religious observance. "That defeats the purpose of the board's intent."
That said, she thinks the community sent a clear message about whether it thinks school should be held on Good Friday.
School officials are expected to look at this year's numbers to settle a three-year debate about adopting an academic calendar recognizing no religious holidays. Questions are rising about a deliberate effort to skew the data.
Hillsborough had to cancel regular bus service Friday to almost two dozen schools, and scores of routes elsewhere, after about 40 percent of bus drivers took the day off. Half of them called in their intentions in the last few days. Campuses were open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. so parents could drop off and pick up their children.
But most families didn't bother to show up. Nearly 60 percent of students took the day off. Classrooms were empty, but the malls were packed. Many students and parents said they saw no point in attending school after teachers said they would just be showing movies and having free time.
"There may have been communication about 'don't introduce anything new,' " said board member Candy Olson. "If that was communicated, then what we're saying is don't take this seriously. If that's the case, then I would have a concern about that."
Some schools managed to hold fairly normal days. The district will have to sort through the disparate results, which may have created more questions than they answered.
One is Elia's initial thesis that religious differences played a key role in determining absentee rates. That does little to explain why two of the high schools with the highest attendance rates were Brandon and Armwood.
Both are in east Hillsborough, widely considered the region's most religiously conservative area.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.