Austin trustees have heated debate over schools named for Confederates

Three Austin school board members got in a heated exchange on Monday night as the school board discussed what to do about the five schools with names or mascots linked to the Confederacy.

Trustee Ann Teich was the only voice on the 9-member board to ask that the names be left, saying that she did not think changing them would improve race relations in Austin.

Trustee Ted Gordon, an adjunct professor who is chairman of the University of Texas department of African and African Diaspora Studies, disagreed.

“We don’t in general celebrate our own enslavement or the folks who instigated and fought for it. So keeping these names says something to the remaining black community in this place,” said Gordon, who is African-American. “It’s not a bureaucratic issue. It’s a moral issue.”

Later in the meeting, Teich said: “I know a lot of black people. I sit with them at Reagan High School football games,” which prompted Gordon to mutter something indiscernible. She responded to him: “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

She also questioned whether Gordon and Trustee Jayme Mathias were accusing her of being a racist.

“If we’re not willing to have those conversations, if we’re not willing to take the lead … we’re not doing squat to change anything. Changing the names of schools is not going to do a thing,” Teich said. “But y’all can do it. I’m just one person.”

Teich, a former teacher whose husband has spoken publicly in favor of keeping the name of Reagan, his alma mater, instead proposed the district lead field trips and community discussions about racial issues and how to address them. She added later in the meeting that she hasn’t seen racial tension in her multicultural neighborhood school. If anything, she said, tension is between economic classes.

Mathias responded: “If we wanted to see racial tension, we need not look farther than this board table.”

Gordon and Mathias said that it was no coincidence that a majority of the schools that are now under scrutiny were named during the celebration of the centennial of the Civil War. Gordon pointed out that the white majority named several of the schools as a direct response to desegregation during the 1950s.

Monday night was the first time the full Austin school board discussed what it will do, if anything, regarding the names of the five campuses that have Confederate references in their names or mascots: Robert E. Lee Elementary School, Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus, Sidney Lanier High School, John H. Reagan High School and William B. Travis High School, which has a Rebel mascot that connotes Confederate imagery.

The two-hour discussion ended with the board referring the matter to yet another one of its committees, where talks have been ongoing for the past three months. The committee will decide whether the language in board policy needs to be changed to rename any of the five campuses.

Since the summer, shortly after the Charleston, S.C., shooting that left nine African-Americans dead, the board’s equity committee has been discussing possible name changes and hearing from people who live near Robert E. Lee Elementary School about the matter.

Several trustees indicated that the district needed to ask more people about the names, such as students, alumni, parents, teachers and staff.

The school district has estimated that changing the name of Lee elementary would cost $13,800 to replace signs. At the high schools, beside the cost of replacing the signs, it would cost $500 for each band uniform and $150,000 for branded athletics uniforms and equipment, according to the district.

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