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School board excludes Muslim holidays from Balto. County's 2005-2006 calendar

Ignoring pleas from members of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Baltimore County school board unanimously approved last night a 2005-2006 school year calendar that excludes two important Muslim holidays.

Several board members who spoke before the vote said they realized the county's population is multicultural, but they would not vote to change the calendar.

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"More than usual, this year has been a great learning experience for this board," said member Jean M.H. Jung. "I look forward to the process that has, very fortunately, begun this year."

Member Donald L. Arnold said the board has been presented with "many challenges" in dealing with religious holidays. He said Jewish holidays were approved several years ago as a result of a spike in student and teacher absences during those times.

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Michael P. Kennedy, another member, said he hoped Baltimore County school officials would "continue to remind teachers of how important it is for us to be sensitive to different holidays."

At issue are Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting and reflection, and Eid al-Adha, or feast of sacrifice, marking the Quranic account of God letting Abraham sacrifice a sheep instead of his son.

School officials established holidays for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in 1995. They said schools were forced to close on those days because classrooms were so empty that the district risked state sanctions for low attendance, and they could not get enough substitute teachers.

But Bash Pharoan, president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council, said after last night's vote that he is tired of hearing excuses.

"The school system needs to either celebrate all other minority holidays or not celebrate any of them," Pharoan said. "We can't stop there and give excuses and give this reason and that reason."

Although Muslims would like to have two recognized holidays on the school calendar, Pharoan said leaders would be willing to compromise and accept only one.

Pharoan said he knew going into last night's meeting that the calendar for the 2005-2006 school year would likely exclude Muslim holidays. He vowed to appeal to the Baltimore County Council and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"If so needed, I will go to the General Assembly to ask for legislation," he said.

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Pharoan estimated there are about 10,000 Muslims in Baltimore County. School officials have said they do not know the number of Muslim students enrolled in Baltimore County schools because they are not allowed to ask for students' religious affiliation.

"We are part of Baltimore County," Pharoan said. "We are taxpayers, we are good citizens, our children are born and raised here."


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