Monday, February 21, 2000

School change proves victory for democracy

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Today is Presidents Day, and Sycamore Community Schools are closed. It's all legal. Presidents Day, still officially known as Washington's Birthday, is a federal holiday.

        School kids throughout Ohio and all over the nation get the day off to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two presidents with February birthdays.

        The holiday reminds me how presidents reach the White House. We put them there. In this democracy, the ultimate power comes from the people.

        Sycamore's school board recognized where the power rests last week over a controversy about days off. By a 4-1 vote, the board decided to end a two-year pilot project and drop two school vacation days from the 2000-2001 school year. The days purposely coincided with Jewish holidays.

        The school board's decision represented a victory for democracy in action. The decision was reached after much public debate — and an assist from a federal lawsuit filed against the school district.

        The district's vacation days fell on the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. The two days had high absenteeism in the ethnically diverse school system, averaging 15 percent by some estimates when the normal absentee rate is 4 percent.

        The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, claiming that the school board was favoring Judaism over other faiths.

        The suit still stands, but the case is essentially moot. The vacation days are gone.

        Still, the sources of power remain in place. A district can set vacation dates on its school calendar. And, the forces of democracy, the power of the people, can change those dates.

Local power
        In the state of Ohio, no centralized authority rides herd on school systems and their calendars. The power to decide when school starts — or breaks for the winter — rests, where it belongs, in the hands of local authorities whose job it is to reflect the wishes of the community.

        “All the state cares about is that a school district meets the legal number of days on the calendar and hours on the clock,” said Jim Boothe, chair of Xavier University's Education Department and a former superintendent of Reading Community City Schools.

        “Vacation times are set at the discretion of the local board,” he added. School superintendents consult with calendar committees made up of administrators, teachers and parents. Dates are proposed and approved by the school board. The dates should be in the best interests of the community, of the people.

        As an educator and former school administrator, Jim Boothe has followed closely the issue of Sycamore Schools' off days. The board has earned his approval.

        “They have done an exemplary job with a difficult situation,” he said. Making mandatory education work in a diverse population is a tough fit.

        “But the board talked to a lot of people and gave the matter a lot of thought before reaching its decision. This is democracy in action.”

Civics lesson
        Sometimes democracy's action takes place among heads of lettuce and stalks of celery. Throughout the two-year pilot program, Don Hirsch, Sycamore's school board president, debated the school vacation days “anytime, anywhere.”

        Those debates often occurred at the Kroger store in Montgomery.

        “People would back me into the produce department and we would talk about the pros and cons.”

        The vacation days were also discussed at formal board meetings. “We heard from all sides. Boy, did we ever. The presentations were well thought-out. The meetings were long. And many. We weighed the evidence carefully. We did not rush into this. Nothing was done behind closed doors. Everything was out in the sunshine. Then we finally voted.”

        The vote did not please everyone. But the board acted in what it thought was the best interests of the people it serves: the taxpayers, the parents and, above all, the students of the Sycamore Community Schools.

        In the end, the people dealt with more than just a debate over vacation days. They were in the middle of a lesson on how democracy works.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.