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AISD changes school naming policy, barely

Wednesday, November 25, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

On Monday, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees unanimously tweaked its facilities naming policy. Although the change clarified the district’s ability to abolish controversial school names, it provided little guidance on if and how such a process might unfold.

Trustees agreed to strike out a clause in current policy that restricts the board from renaming buildings with names of geographical significance or that are named after historic figures. The change also allows board members to request their own agenda items specifically asking for school name changes. These items would be discussed and potentially voted on at public meetings.

Since July, parents of students at the Robert E. Lee Elementary School have requested that AISD change the school’s name. Other Austin residents – who made their voices heard in numerous public comment portions at AISD meetings – also joined the effort. They said they found the Confederate general’s name ill-suited and inappropriate for a modern-day elementary school, citing its racial undertones and the juxtaposition between Southern Civil War values and those of today’s society.

As trustees have continued to debate the issue, residents have requested changing similar names related to four other AISD schools, most of which were named in the 1950s and 1960s, when the district was forced to integrate its schools.

City Council Member Ora Houston, who spoke at Monday’s school board meeting, shed light on the schools’ naming history. Houston said that she attended AISD schools during that racially charged era and that past AISD trustees and community members went to great lengths to protest and delay integration. Houston said that the names were a symbolic act of resistance.

“The Confederate men – (Albert S.) Johnston, (Sydney) Lanier and (John H.) Reagan – did not then and do not now meet the standards of the district for role models,” Houston said. “If the naming was meant to honor Civil War heroes, why weren’t the schools named for Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, or General (Ulysses S.) Grant, who fought to end the enslavement of those from Africa?”

The debate about whether controversial school names should be changed was off the table on Monday night, as AISD trustees struggled just to agree on a new renaming policy put forward by AISD’s policy committee. Board members managed to brainstorm a dozen edits from the dais that included multiple requests for clarification.

Trustee Edmund Gordon said that the draft policy deliberately skimmed the surface when it came to directing the administration’s renaming process, and trustees Kendall Pace and Amber Elenz said that the proposal’s wording regarding a community engagement process was confusing. “Where I’m still kind of lost is: What’s the trigger?” Elenz said, referring to who decides if a school should be renamed or named. “Is it the board, is it the superintendent, is it the campus?”

Trustee Jayme Mathias said he believed the policy leaned more toward a top-down approach, with the board directing name changes for AISD’s 130 schools. He asked fellow trustees if AISD wanted to consider a bottom-up approach with community-led initiatives facilitating names and renaming.

However, President Gina Hinojosa pointed out that even under the existing policy, AISD trustees have always had the power to name or rename facilities. The only issue in the current policy preventing trustees from renaming the controversial schools was a clause prohibiting board members from rechristening facilities named after someone of historical significance. However, the policy also contained a clause possibly allowing historically named schools to be renamed if the original namesake was convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude.

Trustees ultimately agreed to strike out the restrictive clause. After the board’s decision, Elenz told the Austin Monitor that the shortened policy decision was “disappointing” because many at Robert E. Lee Elementary School were ready to move forward with the renaming process, and future board conversations are likely to cause further delays.

Gordon told the Monitor that he did not foresee the policy committee taking up the naming policy again unless forced to by the overall board.

“I’ve thought from the very beginning that the policy doesn’t need to be changed to rename (schools),” Gordon said. “There will still be community involvement and engagement, because you can’t change names without seeing what people want – but I don’t think that all has to be spelled out in the policy, the regulations and in other places.”

Gordon said he is in favor of taking future renaming or naming issues on a case-by-case basis.

Trustee Paul Saldaña said he expects to revisit the issue in December, as he believes several board members would submit renaming-related agenda item requests.

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Photo by Orlin Zebest made available through a Creative Commons License.

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