Group takes aim at Austin schools with names tied to Confederacy

Days after one Austin district trustee was criticized for publicly calling out his peers for delaying a vote on changing school names with ties to the Confederacy, more than a dozen community members Monday night announced the creation of a work group to push the changes forward.

The group of 15, formed by the East Austin Coalition for Quality Education, said it will conduct research, engage the Austin community and develop strategies to create a name changing process for Austin schools. Several of the members in the group — which includes parents, educators, lawyers and community leaders — have experience conducting historical research, lobbying and advocating for social justice issues.

Group members said they hope their efforts — which are independent of school administrators’ work on the issue — help inform the work of Trustee Ted Gordon, the only black member of the board, in his advocacy for changing the names of five schools.

The group is not district- or school board-sanctioned and it remains to be seen whether any of the work it performs will influence the district’s actions or decisions on the matter.

Gordon said forming the work group, which includes members who helped push for more inclusive admission policies at LASA High School and Kealing Middle School’s magnet program, was not his idea. However, he added, “it’s not a bad one.”

“I welcome any and all Austinites who are interested in this issue and interested in fast forwarding the efforts to name our schools in ways that are consistent with our values,” Gordon said. “It can’t hurt to have people who are in favor of this and who are informed about the issue. This also is an indication that any changes to school names won’t just be top down as other board members were alleging the process to be.”

READ: Confederate names on Austin schools date back to civil rights movement

In November, Austin district administrators said they planned to move ahead to rename five Austin campuses with ties to the Confederacy, even if some school communities pushed back against the decision, but would get community input for the selection of the new names. Trustees had mixed responses, with a few saying they felt the change was important and two others calling the timeline aggressive and the decision very top-down.

The administration’s proposal included changing the names of the five schools, including three high school campuses:

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

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

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

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

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

Gordon has become increasingly vocal about changing the names of those schools. Nearly two weeks ago, he blasted fellow board members, saying they had no moral compass, for delaying a scheduled February vote on renaming the schools. During their board discussion Jan. 8, the trustees decided they first want to develop a process for how the school names are changed.

Last week, during a 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. The district, he said, had not acted to “remove the names of traitors who took up arms to defend slavery and destroy their nation.”

Trustee Ann Teich fired back, calling Gordon “a coward” for taking public stances instead of having the conversations with his fellow board members, and challenged Gordon to speak those words to her face. Last week, she also asked trustees to place an agenda item on next month’s board operations meeting to consider censuring Gordon.

In May 2016, the school board voted to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary, the first time the district changed the name of a school because of its ties to the Confederacy. After months of (sometimes contentious) community feedback, the trustees renamed the school Russell Lee Elementary, named for a critically acclaimed Depression-era photographer.

At the time, some trustees said the issue wouldn’t be revived unless the community asked to change the names of other schools. But in August, after a rally by white supremacists protesting the removal of a Confederate monument turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., board President Kendall Pace raised the issue again.

“If Austin is sincere about eliminating the vestiges of segregation, then we need to elevate the symbols that signify the struggle against it and diminish the symbols that signify its acceptance,” Gordon said prior to the meeting. “This is not about rewriting history. This is about reshaping the current cultural values of the Austin community and AISD moving forward into the future.”

On Monday night, several community members addressed the board regarding the issue, arguing for and against possible renaming.

Lanier student Victoria Warner said the district should be focusing on improvements to the building and resources for the students, instead of renaming the school. She also raised issue with changing the names of schools with ties to the Confederacy, but not a consideration to change the name of Austin High School, named for Stephen F. Austin, who owned slaves.

“I don’t think you are really thinking about the kids at the school,” she said. “Our opinion is not being respected. The change is not happening to schools named after slave owners. The change does not help our health or safety. I think you’re focus on the big controversy about the confederacy, not core values or what is best for students.”

Community activist Rocio Villalobos, who is one of the 15 group members, told the board Monday night that the names chosen for institutions represent and reflect certain values, and she was heartened by the University of Texas’ decision last year to remove Confederate statues.

“It says a lot to students who maybe already don’t feel welcome, who maybe already feel disrespected in so many ways in the community,” Villalobos said. “And it makes a huge difference for those students to see that reflected in the actions taken either by their school or by their school district.”

The board is scheduled to discuss the issue again on Feb. 12 during a board work session.

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