Hillsborough Schools settle on secular academic calendar
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05/26/09 Seán Kinane
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Hillsborough Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, and Board members Carol Kurdell and Susan Valdes (l-r).


photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF

Last week, the Hillsborough County School Board approved an academic calendar that keeps Good Friday as a normal school day. Some community members wanted the religious day to be a school holiday.

In 2005, the Hillsborough School Board caused a stir by eliminating all religious holidays -- except Christmas, which falls during winter break -- from its academic calendar. Last week the board voted 6-1 to continue a non-religious calendar for at least two years, according to Chair Carol Kurdell.

“It maintains what we did previously. We have a secular calendar that we voted on. And that will move forward over the next two years.”

Last year there was confusion among staff, students and parents about whether Good Friday would be an excused absence. As a result, many bus drivers, students, and other staff took the day off.

Hillsborough School District Superintendent MaryEllen Elia says that a calendar committee “made up of representatives from various groups who have a keen interest in the [academic] calendar” recommended a secular calendar. Elia predicts that the same confusion won’t happen again.

“We’re going to communicate it very clearly to staff and to all of our employees -- the instructional support employees as well as the instructional employees. We have I think some very clear guidelines from the Board to make sure that everyone is aware of any of the religious holidays that would have students – based on their religious beliefs – taking those days off. And that’s been part of our policy before, but we’re going to continue to communicate that as clearly and as often as necessary.”

School Board chair Carol Kurdell agrees that conveying specific information about the academic calendar will lead to less confusion.

“I think the communication will be much better this year than it was last year. I think the communication was from multiple sources and also among the students themselves and some parents themselves. And you know our students have a right to take whatever religious holiday they want to. They have several days that are given to them that they can avail themselves of, so that no matter what your religion is you can avail yourself of those days.”

For many Christians, Good Friday – two days before Easter - commemorates the day Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Roman Empire. For that reason, some Christian parents, students, staff, and activists lobbied the school district to have an official holiday on Good Friday.

Jennifer Faliero is the only School Board member who voted against the secular academic calendar “and it was based on safety. And it was also based on the fact that legally, we had a supportive reason to give the day off for non-religious purposes – high absenteeism was at 60 percent. And it just didn’t make good sense at that time for me to go ahead and schedule a day to be at school when you have that kind of data. But the board took a vote and I’m going to support it now, and it’s a day of work, and I have to move forward.”

Though she voted against the secular calendar, Faliero thinks the school district’s commitment to reminding the community that Good Friday is a school day could clear up past uncertainty.

School Board vice chair Susan Valdes says that she has “to be fair to all children” so she supported the vote for the secular academic calendar.

“The policy that we have, or procedure that we have in place, of honoring every family’s values and beliefs and affording that opportunity for them to engage in whatever activity they have for whatever religious holiday that they may honor, I think that it speaks volumes of the board in recognizing the importance of families and their traditions and their beliefs. So, leaving it open to any faith to be able to choose which holiday they want to observe, I think is the best scenario for all of our kids.”

When the Hillsborough School Board first voted for a secular calendar in 2005, then-County Commissioner Brian Blair took his opposition all the way to national television on Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly show. But Superintendent Elia says she has not experienced negative feedback from the public since the latest academic calendars were passed.

“I have not heard of any parents that were upset about the decision. I’m sure there were some parents that thought there should have been other things considered. However we’re working very hard to make sure that that goes smoothly. Many parents were very interested in making sure that we just determined exactly what the calendars were so that there was no question and they knew exactly when the holiday and the vacations for their children were.”

Hillsborough County Public Schools

Hillsborough County School Board

Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia

Hillsborough County Public Schools 2009-2010 Student Academic School Calendar

previous WMNF coverage of school calendar issue

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