Austin trustee calls out peers over Confederate school names in MLK speech

5:49 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018 Local
Austin school board member Ted Gordon speaks Monday during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on the East Mall of the University of Texas campus. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Days after blasting his fellow Austin school board members for delaying a decision to remove the names of Confederate figures from five schools, Trustee Ted Gordon doubled down on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

In a speech given before a few hundred attendees on the University of Texas’ East Mall, Gordon, who is also an associate professor and department chair at UT, again raised the issue, saying the district had not acted to “remove the names of traitors who took up arms to defend slavery and destroy their nation.”

“It’s because there are many in our community who do not see these symbols of the Confederacy and Jim Crow segregation as a problem,” he said. “The proposal to change the building names creates tensions between those who seek transformation and those who defend the way things are or who are complacent or fearful in the face of the tensions produced by change. The Austin ISD school board decided to delay its move to change the Confederate names of its schools because it is afraid of the tensions that are produced by the prospects of change.”

Trustee Ann Teich fired back, calling Gordon a “coward” in a text message for not having these conversations with his fellow board members before going to the media or criticizing them in public speeches.

In a previous text message, she also said Gordon should be ashamed for “calling the trustees spineless.”

Gordon did not respond to Teich’s text messages — a few of which were obtained by the American-Statesman.

After Charlottesville, Austin’s Confederate monuments get a second look

A few days before his speech at UT, Gordon told the American-Statesman that “the board has no moral compass and moral spine” for wavering on the issue of renaming the schools, some of which were named following, and many believe in response to, federal school desegregation laws. The school board had been scheduled for a February vote on the matter, but trustees decided to delay it to develop a clearer process for when and how school names are changed.

Gordon also said he was angry the board scheduled the discussion for a meeting he missed because he was out of the country.

Teich, who said Gordon should have flown back in town to attend the meeting, said Gordon used emotionally charged words and violated the board member handbook by behaving unprofessionally and maligning other trustees. She plans to ask board members on Wednesday to consider privately censuring Gordon at a future meeting for his remarks.

Teich has warned of the cost of changing the schools’ names could be millions — much higher than previously estimated district costs of $322,000 — and has argued the issue is more complicated than it seems since other schools aren’t being proposed for changes, including Austin High School, named for Stephen F. Austin, who was a slave owner.

Other trustees seemed wary that the proposed changes were coming from the board and the administration, rather than a push from the community. In 2016, the board approved the name change for Robert E. Lee Elementary. Board President Kendall Pace revived the conversation on renaming other schools last fall. In August 2017, UT, in the middle of the night, removed four statutes of people with ties to the Confederacy.

READ: UT abruptly removes statues of Confederates on a Sunday night

While saying the name changes aren’t the most important issue on his agenda, for the district or among black students, Gordon says he’s not backing down: “As the only African-American on the board and one of two people of color on the board … I plan to become increasingly vocal about issues that affect all our students in AISD, but particularly for African-American students. There is a crisis and an emergency with the kind of education black kids can get in this district.”

Other districts across the state, including Dallas and Houston, already have changed school names linked to the Confederacy.