INDIANAPOLIS — The heavy snow that wiped out a week of school earlier this month is now claiming a new casualty in at least a dozen, mostly suburban school districts — Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Faced with a lost week because of snow and tight calendars the rest of the year, several school districts are using Monday's holiday as a makeup day.
Only one public school district in Marion County will be in session Monday, in part because district officials wanted to squeeze in as many days of classes before ISTEP testing as possible.
"We felt every day was that important," said Flora Reichanadter, superintendent of Franklin Township Schools.
In this snowy season, school districts have almost universally turned to Presidents Day for use as a makeup day. Less common, though, is the use of Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a national holiday shared by all, but of particular importance to many in the African-American community.
And doing so, some contend, sends a potentially troubling message.
The decision to work through the King holiday is one that Mark Russell, director of education, family services and housing at the Indianapolis Urban League, considers insensitive to the holiday and the struggle it represents.
"Given the history of this nation and the unique role that race and race relations has played from its inception, this one long-hard-fought-for holiday — I would hope there would be some recognition that this is not just another holiday," he said.
The decision to treat Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a regular school day also has the potential to reinforce what some believe is a too-widely held and misguided notion; that it is only a holiday for the black community. Consider: Franklin Township is the only district in Marion County that is not observing the holiday. It also has the the smallest black student population, 6 percent, of any public school district in the county.
Many of the suburban districts forgoing the holiday for the sake of making up a snow day have black student populations of less than 3 percent. Avon, with a 10 percent black student population, is an exception.
In Center Grove, where the black student population is 1.2 percent, the King holiday and Presidents Day are built into the calendar as possible snow makeup days, Superintendent Richard Arkanoff said, in a written statement, "While we would rather not have to hold school on either day," he said, "our parents prefer using those days as makeup days, rather than taking days around spring break or the end of school when many of them have planned vacations."
That is not to say that no predominantly white school districts are observing the holiday. At least four are among the districts that will take the day off.
But if there are differences in how predominantly white districts in Indiana are treating the holiday, there is no such debate whether to observe the holiday in districts with larger black-student populations.
Annie Roof, president of the IPS School Board, where more than half the student population is black, said she considers the subject taboo.
"It is an important day," she said. "That is an important piece of history that a lot of these families have lived through and that we need to recognize."
Typically, districts would feel little pressure to use MLK Day as a makeup day. But this year many Central Indiana districts lost five days to the snow that fell Jan. 5 and the deep freeze that followed. The Indiana Department of Education has said it will grant waivers for only two days.
Even with working through the King holiday and Presidents Day, students in Franklin Township will be in school right up until graduation day on May 29. If they lose more days to snow, the district will be asking seniors to come to school after they've been handed a diploma. Interfering with spring break wasn't considered an option, Reichanadter said.
As to remembering Martin Luther King, Reichanadter said many schools in the district have activities planned around the holiday and into next month, some of which she expects to be carried out Monday, when school is in session.
"What better time to celebrate the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," she said, "but to have kids in school to talk about it."
As to whether there is a correlation between low black student populations and an increased likelihood a district is in class Monday, Reichanadter doesn't see it.
"I don't think you really can draw a conclusion that it had to do with demographics," she said, in an email answer to a follow-up question, "because our calendars are just very different."
In Brownsburg, where 10 percent of the student population is black, the district will observe the holiday. The district has for the past three years built in room at the end of the school year.
Superintendent Jim Snapp said absences would be high on the holidays, as people make plans for those days. In the end, though, Snapp said districts are really in a no-win situation.
"It's about choices," he said. "When you have about four or five snow days, choices are more closely scrutinized."