Austin district to renew debate over Confederate school names Monday


Highlights

School board will consider whether to rename five campuses of those who served in the Confederate army.

Monday’s discussion could renew a public clash between school board members on the issue.

Board to weigh policy change adding disqualifying list of actions as to why school can’t be named for someone.

The Austin school district on Monday will revive discussions to remove the names of Confederate figures from a handful of schools, a topic that has sparked division on the board in recent weeks.

The school board will consider whether to rename five campuses — three of which bear the names of people who served in leadership roles in the Confederate army, and two others named after noted Austinites who also fought for the Confederacy.

• The Allan facility (the former Allan Elementary), named for John T. Allan, an officer in the Confederate Army.

• Reagan High School, named for John H. Reagan, the Confederacy’s postmaster general.

• Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston campus, which is named for Gen. Albert S. Johnston.

• Lanier High School, named for Sidney Lanier, a noted poet who fought for the Confederacy.

• Fulmore Middle School, named for Zachary Taylor Fulmore, a private in the Confederate Army.

The district also will provide a timeline for community engagement forums on the possible name changes.

Monday’s discussion could renew a public clash between school board members.

Last month, trustees delayed a decision to rename schools, deciding instead to first discuss policy regarding facility name changes. Trustee Ted Gordon, the only black member of the board, responded to the delay by saying the board had “no moral compass and moral spine” regarding the issue. A few days later, during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech before a few hundred attendees at the University of Texas, Gordon said the board delayed the decision to remove Confederate names from the schools because “it is afraid of the tensions that are produced by the prospects of change.”

Trustee Ann Teich, in a text message, called Gordon a coward for not having the conversations with his fellow board members before criticizing them publicly, and she challenged him to say the words to her face.

Gordon apologized to two board members, board President Kendall Pace and Trustee Yasmin Wagner, in text messages obtained by the American-Statesman under the Public Information Act. Gordon wrote that his public remarks should have made it clear that Pace and Wagner have joined him in questioning whether the district is doing enough to improve academic achievement of black students.

In one of the text exchanges released, Wagner responded to Gordon’s apology saying that rather than use a public platform to “disparage” the board, he could have worked with her to co-author an equity policy.

“As a Muslim Arab-American, I also do not fit the majority of the board,” she wrote. “I have consistently sought both publicly and offline to close achievement gaps for African American students and to change Confederate school names … I will work to bring both issues at hand to a fair and just conclusion, but it won’t be because of public disparagement. Your slights make it more challenging for that work to occur because in doing so you have sent a clear message you do not wish to collaborate with anyone else on the board, including me.”

All trustees have not yet responded to the Statesman’s request under the Public Information Act for any correspondence among themselves, including the full text messages from Teich to Gordon, among other messages.

The school board at Monday’s meeting also will discuss adding criteria to its school naming policy. The proposed change adds prejudice, discrimination and bias to a list of actions that disqualify people from having a school named after them. The policy would extend to changing mascots and symbols that do not align with district values.

Pace said she hopes Monday’s discussion is productive and moves the board forward in taking a vote on the issue soon.

“I hope we can have civil disagreements and we don’t resort to name calling and make sweeping generalizations,” she said.

In 2016, trustees renamed Robert E. Lee Elementary School amid a push for the change from community members, but didn’t consider other schools until the issue was renewed last fall.

Other school districts, including Dallas and Houston, have renamed schools with Confederate ties. Last year, the University of Texas also removed statues of Confederate figures, and the city is in the process of renaming two streets named for those with Confederate ties.



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