Muslim solution proposed

But tracking student attendance during religious observances falls short of request to close school on two Islamic holidays

March 01, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY .. | LIZ F. KAY ..,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore County school board asked Superintendent Joe A. Hairston last night to monitor the attendance of Muslim students on religious observances and to designate the dates of Muslim holiday observances on the school calendar.

The monitoring was among several recommendations by a study group on the school system calendar in response to complaints of inequity from the Muslim community.

"We believe we've provided some solutions for the superintendent to consider," said Luis Borunda, chairman of the committee that developed recommendations for the school calendar. But board members did not take the step that Muslim parents have been seeking the past two years -- to close schools on two Islamic holy days.

"While we do welcome some of the possibilities, the bottom line is it's unequal," said Bash Pharoan, president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council.

School board President Tom Grzymski appointed an ad-hoc committee to come up with recommendations about the school system calendar. The four-member group met twice in January and developed eight suggestions, including that the school system lobby the State Board of Education to change statewide policy on excused absences, so "religious observance would not ... prevent any student from obtaining perfect attendance."

A state advisory group sent a similar proposal to the state board in 2004. Individual school districts can set policies on perfect attendance awards, said state education department spokesman William Reinhard.

For example, in Howard County, students whose only absences fall on a religious holiday are eligible for attendance awards.

Board member John A. Hayden III said he disagreed with the study group's recommendations to avoid scheduling exams on Muslim holidays and to educate students about these observances. He said it would "wreak havoc" with teachers' ability to give tests and assessments.

As for teaching about religious observances, Hayden said, "At what point do we say a religious group deserves the attention of the school system?"

He said instruction about religion should come from the home.

"It's not a function that can come comfortably or well from a school system," he said.

Other suggestions include monitoring attendance at schools with a high population of Muslim students and noting the holidays of Eid Al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha on the calendar grid.

Pharoan disapproved of the monitoring. "It's tantamount to religious and racial profiling," and could be misused, he said.

The board agreed to forward the recommendations to Hairston. The superintendent will forward them to a committee that will develop the calendar for the 2007-2008 school year.

Pharoan raised concerns about the committee's meetings, which were closed to the public.

"There's no reason for the ad-hoc committee to be a closed committee," said Pharoan, who had asked the school board to allow him to observe the sessions -- a request that was denied by Grzymski.

"For him to fail to do that is really closing a meeting that is really the domain of the public," he said.

The school board must advertise meetings of seven or more members. Those meetings must be open to the public except when the agenda includes matters described under state law, such as contract negotiations and personnel issues.

Grzymski said the committee needed time to talk privately about the school calendar.

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