Gerardo Soto (left) is superintendent of Harlandale ISD.
Gerardo Soto (left) is superintendent of Harlandale ISD. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This story has been updated.

The Harlandale Independent School District could change its decision not to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a school holiday this school year, after pushback from the local NAACP chapter, as well as teachers and the community.

Superintendent Gerardo Soto said Tuesday that the school district is considering alternatives for celebrating MLK Day after listening to teachers and community members voice concerns about the decision at Monday night’s board meeting and hearing from representatives of the San Antonio NAACP.

“We are listening, and we do value their opinions,” he said. “We hope to come to a decision soon that continues to benefit the learning of all of Harlandale ISD students. As soon as a decision is made, we will inform our Harlandale ISD family.”

The local NAACP branch on Nov. 7 called for Harlandale ISD to reconsider its decision to eliminate MLK Day as a school holiday after the district closed for Election Day for safety reasons and chose MLK Day for students to make up that day of missed classes.

San Antonio NAACP President Gregory Hudspeth said in a Nov. 7 letter to Soto that the organization is “disappointed” with the school district’s decision “not to honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King” and requested the district place the holiday back on its calendar.

“We believe this is in the best interest of your students,” Hudspeth said. “We believe that the King’s Day celebration is an important day in our collective history. Dr. King’s work was to ensure equality and equal justice for all people; this should be our work as well.”

Citing the Election Day closure, Soto explained in an Oct. 26 letter to district families that Harlandale ISD eliminated MLK Day as a school holiday for the 2020-2021 school year. The district had allowed nine campuses to be used as voting centers, a decision applauded by the local NAACP.

On Monday, Soto said in a statement that while he understands the local NAACP’s concerns, the school district plans to make sure all students and staff participate in the various virtual events honoring MLK Day throughout the city.

“We also believe that honoring Martin Luther King is essential and part of our history,” he said.

The district had surveyed staff members to choose which day to exchange for the Election Day holiday, with the other options being Good Friday, Battle of Flowers Day, and Memorial Day. About 39 percent of the 1,139 staff members who responded selected MLK Day, observed on Jan. 18 next year, followed by Battle of Flowers Day on April 23 with 27.5 percent.

“The decisions we make as a district are always taken with our students’ and employees’ best interest in mind,” Soto said in the statement. “We wanted to make sure our staff had an opportunity to voice their opinion, and that is why we sent out the survey to let them choose.”

Several teachers and community members spoke against the holiday change at Monday night’s school board meeting. They asked the school board not to go forward with eliminating the holiday, although it was not a board decision.

Kristian Ramirez, a teacher, pointed out that most staff members – 61 percent – who responded to the survey chose a day other than MLK Day to eliminate as a school holiday. She also emphasized that no other school district in the area chose to eliminate MLK Day as a school holiday.

“Not only do Black lives matter in the United States and the world, they also matter in this district, and our actions should reflect that,” she said.

Another educator, Natalie Clifford, said Harlandale ISD has more than enough legally required instructional minutes built in the school calendar to keep MLK Day as a holiday for staff and students. She said choosing to get rid of the MLK Day holiday this school year was a poor choice in light of “current events.”

“The elimination of the holiday has conveyed an implicit message, whether intentionally or not, that we do not value our African American employees, students and families, nor those who are multiracial or Afro-Latino,” she said.

Jose Llamas, Harlandale ISD’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, also spoke against the holiday change, pointing out that King is one of the few, if not the only, historical figures taught to students in Texas from kindergarten through high school.

“By not celebrating Dr. King’s birthday, we are sending a different, negative message to students in the community that he is insignificant and that it devalues what Dr. King worked for,” he said. “We are all the products of Dr. King’s work. We don’t celebrate Dr. King because he was a Black man fighting for Black people. We celebrate him because he fought so everyone can have these opportunities.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.