Five Austin school district campuses will get new names as early as this fall, after trustees voted to strip them of the names of Confederate leaders and soldiers.
A divided school board on Monday night voted 7-2, with Trustees Julie Cowan and Ann Teich voting against, after months of contentious debate on whether to change the schools named to honor those who served in the Confederate army.
Several trustees said the names represent values inconsistent with the district’s beliefs, and they pointed out that some of the names were placed on schools in areas with high minority populations during the civil rights movement, after the federal court-ordered desegregation of public schools.
“These decisions were made with the intent of white resistance to equality,” Trustee Yasmin Wagner said. “This is the time when we need to be on the right side of history. We need to make changes for the right reasons, and we have the opportunity to do that finally.”
Trustees who opposed renaming the schools, or raised concerns despite ultimately voting for the measure, pointed to the $77,000 per campus estimated cost, and argued that the school board should have taken the action as a result of a groundswell from the public. Instead, the change was initiated last year largely by President Kendall Pace after a rally by white supremacists fighting removal of a Confederate monument turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va.
The Austin schools to be renamed include the former Allan Elementary, Fulmore Middle School and the Lanier and Reagan high schools as well as the Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston campus.
While Monday night’s vote ends a monthslong debate among trustees on whether to rename the schools, it launches months of district and community work to find new names for the campuses. It’s unclear exactly how long it will be before the campuses get new names. After the board voted to rename the former Robert E. Lee Elementary in 2016, it took two months to solicit community input and vote on a new name.
For the five names, the district will also host various community forums to notify the public of the changes and solicit feedback for the new names, which is expected to take longer.
Trustee Ted Gordon, the only black member of the board and a staunch supporter of renaming the schools, said no African-American had any say in naming them after Confederate figures in the first place.
“I will be the only African-American who has had the opportunity to vote on the appropriateness of naming AISD schools after such Confederate associated individuals in our district’s history,” Gordon said. “With this motion I mean to correct this injustice.”
3 name changes were recommended
Prior to the vote, Superintendent Paul Cruz recommended renaming only three schools that bore the names of Confederate army leaders: Allan, Johnston and Reagan. However, Gordon’s motion was for all five and most of the board backed him.
Other school districts across the country and the state, including Dallas and Houston, already voted to remove the names of Confederate figures from their schools. Local political and community leaders criticized the Austin district for being slow in making the change.
But others continued to express concern about the board’s action.
Cowan said she could not support the measure because she fears the district is “breaking ties with hundreds, if not thousands, of people who could have been our allies had we been more strategic” in the approach to the name changes.
“I do not support the top-down approach AISD administration and some board members have taken,” Cowan said. “I do not think that while AISD is facing a $30 million shortfall that any additional dollars should go toward this effort.”
Teich questioned how the costs to rename the schools would be covered and suggested that those who have pushed for renaming the schools foot the bill, including reimbursing costs to high school juniors who already bought their letterman jackets, since the school names are set to change as soon as next school year.
“I want you all to think about what you’re doing and the nuances of all this,” Teich said. “Emotion right now is ruling more than thinking and thinking critically. I don’t think changing the names is going to change anyone’s heart or mind. If they’re going to be prejudiced, you have a lot more work to do.”
Teich also said if the board is set on removing from schools the names of people who supported slavery, it should also change the names of Stephen F. Austin and James Bowie high schools, because “these were slave traders or people who promoted slavery.”
Pace would not hear Teich’s motion. Pace later said the board agenda posting did not give the public notice of possible action on any other facility, therefore trustees could not consider it.
Monday night’s board meeting was full, but it did not draw the standing-only crowds seen two years ago when the board voted to rename the former Robert E. Lee Elementary.
About 330 community members signed and delivered a petition pushing to rename the schools prior to the board meeting that called for the name changes.
Among them was parent Maggy McGiffert.
“We have whitewashed our history for too long,” McGiffert said. “We have failed to teach our youth and ourselves the full history of our community. We have left out so many voices in the names of our schools. This renaming process will not take away from our history, but will add to it. Our students deserve to learn about our schools’ past and be part of creating names and traditions that represent our values today.”
The associated costs for one secondary school to change marquees, building signage and logos on gym floors, among other things, could total $77,000, plus the cost of new sports and band uniforms, according to district documents.
Community member Steve von Roeder, during public comment Monday, told the board the money to rename schools should be spent elsewhere, including on improving safety for students and faculty.
“To rename the schools based purely on the namesake as part of the Confederacy indicates that no one has looked into the contributions of these men,” von Roeder said. “It’s time for AISD to leave the past alone and focus on the present and the future.”
The campuses to be renamed
• 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.
Panel discussion Wednesday
Two days after the Austin board’s decision to remove Confederate figures from its schools, the East Austin Coalition for Quality Education will host a dialogue on the issue. Civil War Reignited: The Power & Place of Confederate Namesakes will be 6 p.m. in the King-Seabrook Chapel of Huston-Tillotson University, 900 Chicon St.
Panelists include Austin school Trustees Ted Gordon and Ann Teich, NAACP Austin chapter President Nelson Linder and Lanier and Reagan high school students.