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They want `Christmas' back in vacation

Three trustees in south O.C. school district want a return to the old name of what's now `winter' break. The proposal offends some parents.

January 11, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Three newly elected school board members in southern Orange County want to rename the two-week winter vacation the "Christmas" recess.

Ellen Addonizio, Anna Bryson and Larry Christensen, who were elected to the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees in November, say they are not pushing religion into public schools, but are honoring the federal holiday that falls on Dec. 25.

"Traditionally, it was always called that," Christensen said. "It's what it is: Christmas break."

Some parents recoiled at the proposal.

"I'm very offended by what they're doing," said Gila Jones, a San Juan Capistrano mother whose two children graduated from district schools. "I'm not Jewish, I'm not Muslim, but if they think that this is respectful of our non-Christian students and their parents and community members, they are fools."

The proposal comes at a time of growing backlash against what some argue is an attempt to drive religion out of public life.

In recent years, shoppers boycotted Wal-Mart and other retailers whose employees greeted customers with "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Politicians, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, were urged to refer to the decorated conifers that graced state capitals around the nation as "Christmas trees" rather than "holiday trees."

The vacation issue surfaced at Capistrano Unified's board meeting Monday, the first since the new trustees were sworn in. During a routine discussion of school calendars, Addonizio questioned whether the holiday break could be renamed, according to Beverly de Nicola, district spokeswoman.

Attempts to reach Addonizio were unsuccessful, but De Nicola said she reasoned that because Christmas "is recognized by the federal government as a holiday, then the school district should be able to use that same wording."

Bryson agreed, and asked district staff to research whether any legal restrictions would bar such a change. Bryson and Christensen said Wednesday they supported changing the name. The other four trustees could not be reached for comment.

Vacation names are decided by local districts. Starting in the late 1980s, many districts began using the term "winter break." But some schools are going back to the old name. In December, the 36,000-student Kern High School District decided to rechristen its holiday break. Districts in Arizona and Missouri also have renamed their vacations.

Deborah Lauter, national civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League, said she was dismayed by the trend, which she says values Christianity above other religions.

"Public schools should seek to be welcoming and inclusive and respect all religions, or even those with no religion," she said.

Greg Scott, a spokesman for the conservative Alliance Defense Fund in Scottsdale, whose attorneys have advised districts that they can call the vacation "Christmas" break, dismissed Lauter's concerns.

"It is a sad day in America when it is controversial to put Christmas on the school calendar," he said. "It's not leaving anybody out. It's honoring a federal holiday."

The Christmas question is one more controversy to dog Capistrano Unified.

Although many of the district's 56 schools are ranked among the state's best, recent brouhahas have included allegations that the board violated state open-meetings law; the resignation of its superintendent after accusations that he kept an "enemies list"; and disputes over attendance boundaries, a new high school's location, portable classrooms and a costly administration center.

Angry parents unsuccessfully tried to recall all seven school trustees in 2005. The three candidates they supported in the recent election, Addonizio, Bryson and Christensen, claimed seats in November.

During the campaign, opponents linked the trio to the Education Alliance, a conservative Orange County group that calls for back-to-basics schooling and disparages teachers unions and federal involvement in local districts. The candidates denied any connection, but after the vote, the alliance sent an e-mail to supporters thanking them for helping to elect school board candidates across the county, mentioning Addonizio, Bryson and Christensen by name.

Jones, who voted for Addonizio, said she felt betrayed.

"Ellen promised me during the election that she and the other two candidates were totally in support of separation of church and state," she said. "I don't see how that can be consistent with what she has just done."

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