Friday, February 18, 2000

Sycamore schools ax 2 disputed holidays

Board vote ends squabble over religion

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BLUE ASH — Two school vacation days, coinciding with Jewish holidays, have been eliminated by a 4-1 vote of the Sycamore Community school board — a move that pleases some religious groups and may help settle a federal lawsuit against the northeastern Hamilton County district.

        The 2-year-old pilot project that had been in place was not religion-based, but rather an attempt to coincide days off with high absentee rates, Superintendent Bruce Armstrong said. “We were rescheduling school around those high absentee dates ... (which) average 15 percent. The normal absentee rate is 4 percent,” he said.

        The school district is prohib ited from polling students' religious affiliations, so no statistics exist on the percentage of various faiths in the district of about 6,000 students, officials said.

        School board President Don Hirsch, who voted with the majority, said other religious groups including Muslims and Hindus “are strongly represented in our community and they have days that they revere. ... If we give two holidays to coincide with one religion, we should give two to the others ... to be fair.”

        Because there are so many cultures and religions represented in the district, coinciding vacation days with each is impractical, Mr. Hirsch said.

        “This is a public school system, so we are going to attempt to run our district with nonreligious days off,” he said.

        “And a large number of parents of Jewish belief called me back when we started this and

        said they did not want their children identified with getting unfair or special treatment.”

        Jean Staubach, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said the board “ignored information we had from the pilot study we ran for two years ... (that) showed it was successful. There were no education problems associated with (it). It had nothing to do with religion. It only had to do with absenteeism. ... We eliminated the highest two days of absenteeism.”

        The board decision was well-received by Majed Dabdoub, president of the Islamic Association of Greater Cincinnati, who had been critical of the policy.

        “The majority of people in this country are Christian and you cannot argue with them (over holidays). But then you can't give certain minorities preferences. You either recognize all or none,” he said.

        Barbara Glueck, area director of the American Jewish Committee, said schools should set their calendars for administrative, not religious, reasons.

        “They must not penalize teachers or students who are absent for holy days, but they need not close unless administrative guidelines determine that a high number of absences will disrupt efficient functioning,” she said.

        The district's policy of declaring vacation days to fall on the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana also prompted a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

        In August, the ACLU of Ohio Foundation filed suit against the school board seeking to force an end to the policy as favoring Judaism over other religious faiths.

        ACLU attorney Stephen R. Felson, who filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, said Thursday that while the lawsuit still exists, “it is quite possible to settle it, unless they want to go on litigating it.”

        School district attorney R. Gary Winters said the board vote essentially ends the issue. “The board's action has effectively mooted the lawsuit,” he said.

        Kristen Bloomstrom, a senior at Sycamore High School, said she understands the board's decision.

        “It is based on pressure from the ACLU,” she said. “However, I think I have an interesting perspective, being a Christian. They said the days were scheduled off to deal with the high absentee rate and I think that's what it was based purely upon.”

        The ACLU lawsuit scared some people, said Sue Wilke, a former board member who supported the vacation days.

        Regarding fairness, Ms. Wilke pointed out Good Friday is a religious observance and a school vacation day.

        Kim Sullivan, school district spokeswoman, said Good Friday is a union-negotiated day off with the Ohio Professional School Employees collective-bargaining unit representing most nonteaching district workers.

        Ohio school districts are required to schedule 182 school days, of which classes must be in session a minimum of 175 days. Districts may close schools five days because of weather or other problems, and schedule two nonclass days for parent-teacher meetings.

        Enquirer reporter William A. Weathers contributed.


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