School decision on Memorial Day draws ire
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 20, 2008 2:01 AM
Memorial Day, a federal holiday commemorating the lives of men and women who have died in military service, will be a regular day of classes this year for Wayne County Public Schools.
And the decision has military parents and veterans up in arms.
The last Monday in May is traditionally a three-day weekend signaling the start of summer.
But in a military town, during wartime, deployed and returning troops serve as a poignant reminder of what the holiday is really all about.
Stacy Doulin could not believe it when a friend told her that her children would be in school that day.
"I was like, 'You're kidding!' I was really surprised," said the Air Force wife.
She said she made a few calls to the school system, where she was told Wayne County was not the only county making the choice, that the decision was statewide.
"So I looked up Wake and Johnston and Lenoir. They're all observing the holiday," Mrs. Doulin said.
Two other surrounding counties -- Duplin and Greene -- also list Memorial Day as a holiday for students and staff. Wayne County, the only county with a military base in its midst, is not.
And Memorial Day is not scheduled to be a holiday next year, either.
School officials attribute the calendar decision to increasing mandates putting a constraint on the number of student and teacher workdays.
"For an area like Wayne County that has survived off the backs of the military for a number of years, to just not observe the holiday ... I just cannot believe it," Mrs. Doulin said.
"I watch the news and every day another American is dying (in the war). If we're not taking the time to acknowledge the sacrifices they're making now, what's going to happen when they come home? I can see another Vietnam happening."
She said she is concerned about the message the decision sends children.
"I just believe that it sets a really bad precedent," she said. "Do we lose our right to have a say in what goes on just because we're military?"
It's not just about another day at the beach, Mrs. Doulin noted, although she said she would be interested in what impact the move will have on tourism and families who would otherwise take advantage of the three-day weekend.
In the meantime, she has no plans to send her children to school May 26.
"I haven't really discussed with my husband exactly what we're going to do, but we'll do something so they will know what that day means," she said.
Janet Grover also intends to keep her daughter home from school.
A child care provider, she said she will open her doors for parents of the children she cares for who want to observe the day with them.
It isn't the kind of holiday where you just "pick and choose" whether or not to observe it, she said.
"From what I was told, they have so many days in school. I understand about observing Presidents' Day instead, but Memorial Day, I feel, is more important," she said. "We're sitting here, living in a military community. This town is built around a military base.
"We want our children to understand the importance of this. We want them to learn about this. ... I would feel that way even if my husband wasn't active duty."
Being in the Air Force, living on or near a base installation presents its own unique situation, especially around a holiday like Memorial Day, Christina Huf said.
"For us, our spouses are off that day. It's a down day. The base is closed," she said. "Being in the military, you don't get to do a lot of that."
Mrs. Huff has two children, one of school age.
"Since my son's been in school, they have always had that day off. There's an awful lot of teacher workdays and they can take one of those," she said. "Especially in a military town -- that's our way to give back. It's just something (the district) shouldn't take away."
Toni Phaneuf's husband just returned home last weekend after a seven-month deployment to Iraq.
This year's holiday has even more meaning for her.
"There's a lot of men that he knew that will not come back," she said. "For them to not respect this holiday is outrageous, it really is."
Mrs. Phaneuf has three children, one still at home. Her military connection goes beyond her husband's enlistment. One of her grown children is in the Army, and Mrs. Phaneuf's father and grandmother also served.
"You know how they always said, 'Your grandmother wore combat boots?' Well, mine did," she said with a laugh. "She was a Marine."
None of the explanations she has been given about the decision not to observe Memorial Day as a school holiday have been sufficient, especially the one about a representative from the base serving on the district calendar committee.
"I really don't think that person represented the true spirit on the base," she said. "What they said or how they voted was not representative. They take federal funding for our children to attend schools. They can take that money, but then not give us the holiday. That's insulting."
Area veterans are also insulted.
Bill Carr, a retired Marine and chaplain of the local chapter of Military Order of the Purple Heart, said the least anyone can do is take off a day to remember those who lost their lives.
"We should be honoring these people," he said. "I have talked with my peers and they feel the same way that I do. It's ludicrous that they don't have this day off for people that have died for our country."
Those heroes made the supreme sacrifice, said Mike Burris of the Wayne County Veterans and Patriots Coalition. He called the school system's decision a "tragedy."
"It's bad enough that the kids aren't being taught patriotism in the classroom to begin with," he said. "They don't teach history anymore, hardly. So the kids nowadays just don't get to learn that stuff. It's a shame."
School officials are not unsympathetic. They simply have "lost flexibility" in the regular school calendar.
Blaming legislators for the state-imposed mandates governing local school systems, in recent years the restrictions have grown increasingly challenging, said Olivia Pierce, executive director of community relations, media and technology. The school year cannot start before Aug. 25 and can end no later than June 10, with the days in between required to include a minimum of 180 days of instruction as well as a smattering of other specialized days.
There are a required number of teacher workdays, annual leave days, early dismissal days for staff development, plus the "same or an equivalent number of legal holidays" which include several mandatory holidays -- Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Martin Luther King Day and Easter.
Memorial Day is deemed "optional" and may or may not be observed.
"We have the same situation with Memorial Day and President's Day," Mrs. Pierce said. "President's Day was requested by the (base) representative, that their constituents would prefer, if they had a choice, that we observe President's Day."
As for counties opting to observe Memorial Day, Mrs. Pierce said "others had to look at their calendar as it affected their school district."
Even though students will not have the day off, Mrs. Pierce said they will learn about the significance of the holiday.
"We're planning, each of our schools is planning, activities to commemorate Memorial Day," she said. "ROTCs at some of our high schools will be leading activities. All of our schools will be observing Memorial Day and helping students to understand the significance."
Mrs. Pierce suggested if parents want to see Memorial Day added to the mandatory holidays calendar, they should call their state representatives.
"I would encourage parents and others to let their legislators know that they would like their school system to have more flexibility," she said. "We recognize and appreciate very much the fact that we're considered a military state if you will because of the number of installations we have in our state. I would encourage them to lobby our legislators to make Memorial Day a holiday."
Col. Steve Kwast, 4th Fighter Wing commander, said in a prepared statement that in the past the school board "has been very gracious in allowing our children to be with their parents on such cherished federal holidays."
He put the base's service to the community and the nation in perspective.
"The Wayne County community and the base have a long history of working together to support those airmen who deploy in defense of our nation. Over the last year, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base has deployed 1,700 people in support of the Global War on Terror," Kwast said. "In fact, almost 700 airmen will be coming home in the next few weeks. Memorial Day weekend is a chance for our children and their parents to recapture some of the time lost over those deployments."
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