Arlington school board to consider revised Chavez holiday

ARLINGTON -- After rejecting a proposed Cesar Chavez holiday nearly a year ago, the school board tonight will consider using an existing May holiday to memorialize the labor leader and civil rights activist.

The proposal amounts to a compromise that wouldn't cost a day of classroom instruction, a concern cited by several board members when the concept of creating an additional holiday was rejected in December.

Officials with the school district and local civil rights groups said they believe that approval would make Arlington the first Texas school district to provide students a day off to honor Chavez.

"The bottom line is, it's the right thing to do," said board President Gloria Peña, who cast one of the two votes for the proposed additional holiday at that meeting. She said Hispanics consider Chavez, who founded the United Farm Works of America, as important to them as Martin Luther King Jr. is to African-Americans.

"We don't want the memory of a man who has done so much lost," she said.

Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in the district, making up about 41 percent of the 64,000 students; Anglos make up 26 percent. Supporters of the holiday said Chavez, who died in 1993, would serve as a role model for Hispanics students as well as others.

"Cesar Chavez represented struggle and being tenacious," said Luis Castillo, president of the Arlington League of United Latin American Citizens. The holiday would "give the opportunity to engage not only the students but the community in the education process."

Veterans Day debate

The new proposal -- offered at the Nov. 4 board meeting by longtime community activist Richard Gonzales --also addressed a timing issue. Last year's proposal was for a holiday on Chavez's birthday, March 31, closing schools during intensive preparation for state standards testing. The holiday now being considered would replace what is now called May Holiday, formerly Cinco de Mayo.

Trustees Aaron Reich and Bowie Hogg, who voted against the earlier proposal, said this week that they still have issues about establishing the holiday. Reich noted that although Veterans Day has been a federal holiday since 1938, it has not been an Arlington school holiday.

"If we have a Cesar Chavez day off and we don't have Veterans Day off," Reich said, "what kind of signal does that send to the community?"

Trustee Jamie Sullins, who was elected in May, said a better way to honor Chavez might be to keep schools open and focus classroom studies and activities on Chavez, like schools do for Veterans Day.

"We do a terrific job of honoring the men and women who serve our country," she said.

Place-holder date

Currently there is no federal Chavez holiday. The Texas Legislature added Cesar Chavez Day as an optional holiday for state employees in 1999. Tarrant County has observed the day since 2001 by closing its offices.

The district removed Cinco de Mayo -- which commemorates the Mexicans' victory over French invaders in 1862 -- from the school calendar three years ago because many don't consider it a celebration for all Hispanics. The day was replaced with the more general May Holiday, but Peña, who initiated the removal, said she told the board at the time that many Hispanics considered that change a place holder for an eventual Cesar Chavez Day.

The calendar proposed by the district's calendar committee recommends ending the first semester before the winter break instead of in mid-January. Teachers have complained that the traditional end requires spending class time to refresh students for end-of-semester exams after the two-week holiday.