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AISD punts Confederate name changes to committee

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

With tension hanging thick in the air, Austin Independent School District trustees’ tempers rose as they discussed ways to tackle the politically and racially charged topic of potentially changing Confederate-related names associated with five AISD schools: 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 (whose mascot, the Rebels, is the offending name in question).

Residents initially brought forward a grassroots initiative championing a name change for Lee Elementary School in July. On Monday, trustees met for the first time to review the district’s overall school naming policy. Board members tossed around several solutions before ultimately assigning the issue to the board’s policy committee, which is led by District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon.

The original push to rename Lee Elementary came shortly after a shooting at a historic black church in South Carolina, a fact that was not lost on District 3 Trustee Ann Teich, who was the sole trustee publicly unsupportive of name changes.

“This kind of thing, changing school names, seems to happen whenever some sort of major horrific event happens. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to that event,” Teich said. She recommended alternative community-outreach solutions to address racial tensions instead.

According to district documents, it would cost an estimated $13,000 to change an elementary school’s name and $77,000 to change a secondary school’s name. For secondary schools, an additional $150,000 and $500 per band uniform would be needed to change branded items, such as athletic equipment.

Nonetheless, Gordon and District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias said the fact that three AISD schools currently bear the names of Confederate generals is a legitimate moral issue that shouldn’t be swept under the rug.

“To think that during the celebration of the centennial of the Civil War, we named three of our high schools after Confederate heroes – not Union heroes,” Mathias said. “There’s a dark history to this district that I would love to see us acknowledge in some way.”

Gordon, the only African-American on the board, said the issue was personal for him and noted that “in many ways (Austin is) just another southern town.”

Quoting from historical documents, Gordon pointed out that John H. Reagan – Reagan High’s namesake – said society should consider exterminating African-Americans if emancipated because they were incapable of survival or self-governance.

Gordon also noted that AISD was being forced to integrate during the time period when the three schools were named.

He asked the board to take responsibility for the names and recognize the issue. He also rejected the simplified solution of shortening Robert E. Lee Elementary School’s name to Lee Elementary School.

Nevertheless, Teich said she did not see widespread outrage about the schools’ names. She said, tongue in cheek, that she believed all the schools should be named after women, the most historically repressed portion of the population, but that a simple name change would not fix the deeper issues at hand.

“I know a lot of black people; I sit with them at Reagan High School football games,” Teich said, as Gordon said something under his breath. She responded, “Don’t put words in my mouth. … I don’t see any of this racial tension at our football games. Where I see it is from a small group of people who want to get rid of racial tension. … But let’s do it in a more productive way.”

Teich added that in Austin, she sees more stress among economic classes than among racial groups.

On the other side of the table, At-Large Board Member Kendall Pace and District 4 Trustee Julie Cowan proposed more policy- and process-oriented solutions.

Cowan suggested possibly requiring a certain number of signatures on a petition, several public meetings and a subsequent supermajority board vote before implementing a school name change. Pace added the idea of possibly carving out a separate policy for schools named after individuals associated with the Confederacy.

“One of the reasons why I said a specific one is because I think it makes it more actionable sooner,” Pace said. “I can foresee a (future) in which vested special interest groups get involved in this process if it’s not clear.”

Current AISD policy allows facilities to be renamed after 50 years. Trustees noted that the policy provides an exemption for historically significant names but also specifies that facilities cannot be named after individuals convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. Thus, it is somewhat unclear.

Nevertheless, Gordon said that board members still currently have the power to change school names regardless of the current or any future naming policy.

AISD’s Board Policy Committee will take up the issue Nov. 20.

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