After months of debate, the majority of the Austin school board has agreed to vote Feb. 26 on whether to change the names of five schools that have ties to the Confederacy.
The trustees Monday night debated issues regarding policy changes, financial costs and community input surrounding renaming schools but ultimately decided it was time to bring the issue to a vote. If the majority agrees to change the school names, the district will take nominations from the public and community members, including the campus advisory councils, will review the suggested names. Trustees could vote on new school names as early as May 21.
“I understand this is emotional, but this is a real history full of real pain and real injustice,” Trustee Ted Gordon said Monday night. “This is about human dignity, the actual life of slavery. … There is a direct connection to John H. Reagan and the fact that our black kids are doing 30 and 40 points worse on math and reading. So this isn’t about school pride. It’s about something much deeper.”
The school board will consider whether to rename the following five campuses:
• 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.
Trustee Yasmin Wagner said she sees “this as a social issue we can address, and I’m ready to take that on,” but said she, as well as other trustees, said they must weigh the financial impact of changing the names, estimated to be at least $77,000 per school, plus other costs such as uniforms.
Others raised concerns about the lack of community input in the process to rename these schools. When the board voted to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary two years ago, there was a concerted effort among community members, including some school parents, to rename that campus. It is now called Russell Lee Elementary, after the critically acclaimed Depression-era photographer who was a founder of the University of Texas photography department.
“Everything we’ve ever had to do has needed a lot more community participation and favor,” said Trustee Julie Cowan, who said she was not sure whether she would support name changes. “And for us to not take that into account this time around is a little hard for me to accept. … I haven’t heard an outcry from the current students and parents at these targeted campuses like we had from Lee Elementary. So it feels different to me.”
While some Austin residents have gone to the trustees asking for name changes, a few current students said at board meetings they don’t see the need for it. Lanier alumni, those both in favor and against, have emailed trustees. And a Reagan alumna submitted results to an informal survey of fellow alums that showed the majority of the 1,169 who submitted answers did not want to see Reagan’s name changed.
The trustees have clashed over the issue in recent weeks, and Gordon has publicly shamed the board for delaying a vote on this issue. Trustee Ann Teich had asked the three board officers to consider putting on the agenda the censure of Gordon, but, on Monday night, board President Kendall Pace said they didn’t believe his comments violated policy.
“We certainly encourage individual trustees to speak their own truth while in public in a manner that doesn’t denigrate colleagues,” said Pace, reading from the officers’ statement. “The AISD board is currently grappling with subject matter that is complex, that has already caused angst among trustees, but such is our work. It is the officers’ expectation that public discussion, whether in agreement or dissent, will be respectful. And at this time, no trustee will be censured.”
On Monday night, trustees also discussed proposed policy changes that would require all school mascots, nicknames and descriptors to “respect cultural differences and values.”