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AISD announces Lee Elementary decision deadline

Tuesday, March 1, 2016 by Courtney Griffin

In a year defined by hard conversations about race and historical legacies, the Austin Independent School District has finally announced a date to vote on a potential name change for Robert E. Lee Elementary School. The issue was brought to the board by Hyde Park residents in July.

In a brief statement Monday before more than an hour of public comment, Board President Kendall Pace said the board will discuss the issue at its March 21 work session and possibly vote at its March 28 regular meeting.

The announcement came after the school’s Campus Advisory Committee, known as the CAC, voted unanimously in January in favor of changing the school’s name. District CACs are committees of parents, students, businesses, community representatives, teachers, principals and other staff designated under Texas Education Code to advise trustees on campus-related issues. Lee’s CAC met over the course of six months before deciding on the issue.

Nevertheless, the 26 residents who signed up Monday night to voice their opinions on the matter were not unified.

“I think we know (this is) about whether too little or too much care is paid to the persistence of racism in our society,” said Daniel Optenheimer, noting the broader context of the discussion. “It’s about police brutality towards African-Americans. It’s about Black Lives Matter. … This is a very small battle in a much larger fight about what kind of society we want to be.”

Numerous parents in past meetings have stepped forward to denounce Lee’s associations with slavery as an inappropriate school legacy to pass on to future students. However, other Austin residents came out against the name change Monday with a variety of new arguments and tactics.

Carolyn Roberts, a parent of two Lee students who stated that she represented a group of residents, told board members the name – affixed to the building in art deco lettering – should be preserved because of its architectural significance. Roberts said she presented her case on Feb. 22 to Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission, which unanimously agreed to discuss nominating the school for historical landmark designation at its March 28 meeting. A historical designation from the city would largely prohibit building modifications.

“The school building is a remarkable example of the 1930s art deco architecture, and an integral part of the building’s design is its original deco lettering — Robert E. Lee School — as well as the matching deco sign of its historic auditorium,” Roberts said. She added that the school had been federally funded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, lending it further historical significance.

David Vandenberg, a recent law school graduate, warned trustees that the AISD school board might not have the legal authority to change the school’s name because of state and federal laws protecting monuments that carry veterans’ names.

District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias requested that AISD legal counsel look into the merits of Vandenberg’s claim.

John Lassiter, parent of a former Lee student, pointed out that if anyone had doubts about the nationwide interest in changing the school’s name, they need look no further than social media.

“These are not my comments,” Lassiter prefaced, before reading several posts: “‘This is no difference than ISIS destroying history in the Middle East.’ ‘If you don’t like how things are here, then you can carry all back north of the Mason Dixon line.'”

Among Monday night’s 26 speakers, 18 voiced support for rechristening the school. Game developer Starr Long, a parent of a kindergarten student at Lee, went a step further, offering to cover the district’s $13,000 cost of the name change.

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