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Robert E. Lee sign change erodes trust between city commission and school district

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

In an emotional, accusatory hearing, the Historic Landmark Commission voted Monday night to initiate historic zoning on the school formerly known as Robert E. Lee Elementary.

Since the case first appeared before the commission, AISD has voted to change the name of the school to Russell Lee Elementary, and the district’s subsequent removal of the art deco signage on its facade caused major consternation among those pushing for its preservation and commissioners alike.

It all culminated in Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky ejecting one member of the public from the meeting with a firm “Out! Out!” and a unanimous vote by the commissioners, with commissioners Michelle Trevino and Tiffany Osburn absent.

Commissioner David Whitworth said that he was on the record as supporting the school’s renaming but also noted, “This is not going well,” and moved forward with supporting the initiation.

That was, perhaps, an understatement.

After hearing from a number of residents outraged by the removal of the sign, the commissioners took their turn asking representatives from AISD just what, exactly, had happened. All the members of the commission who spoke appeared to be under the impression that any such action would wait until after Monday’s meeting, and they wanted answers.

“I hope you’ve had a very good explanation for what you’ve done,” said Commissioner Blake Tollet. “Obviously, there’s some misremembering. … My concern is that you kind of stood here and said this wasn’t going to happen. That was my opinion. I believe everyone up here believed that. Where did the miscommunication come from?”

Jacob Reach, who is the special assistant to AISD’s superintendent, told the commission that they had, indeed, removed the lettering on the school following the name change through an action of AISD’s board of trustees.

He further explained that the new sign, which will bear the new name of the school, will be in the same style as the previous signage. He clarified that they intended to retain plaques by the doors that celebrated the school’s construction.

Reach said, “My understanding is that we said we would do our best to keep any changes under the same style, and that is our intention, and what we are doing now.”

Chair Mary Jo Galindo clarified that the actual recommendation from their last meeting was to postpone the case and draft a Memorandum of Agreement that would “ensure that no changes are made to the exterior of the school without review of the Historic Landmark Commission.”

Galindo said that they entered into the agreement as a matter of trust and “now felt that trust was not mutual.”

AISD staff attorney Jamie Turner said that, subsequent to that recommendation, AISD had approved the name change formally, and Sadowsky was aware of the changes. She assured the commission that the “historic and architectural design elements of the building would be maintained.”

“But I felt like I communicated that I wouldn’t be able to make any agreement or enter into an agreement without the board of trustees,” said Turner. “I didn’t mean to create any sort of confusion.”

Commissioner Terri Myers pointedly asked whether the intention was to “violate the agreement” between the two entities, but Turner said she didn’t think there was necessarily an agreement, but a plan to work on a plan. She said that she did not have the authority to strike an agreement and did not know the district had any intention of removing the letters before Monday’s meeting.

“I did not stand before the committee as an agent authorized to make agreements,” she said. “What I said was that I would be willing to work with Sadowsky’s office, but any sort of formal agreement has to go before our board of trustees.”

Commissioner Arif Panju, who has never previously supported a historic landmark, said that he had understood that Turner was speaking in an official capacity, for AISD, and then the district went and “did the exact opposite of what they represented to us.”

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Panju. “There was a complete, blatant disregard and disrespect to our commission. … That undermines the credibility of your client, moving forward, before this body. That’s a big deal.”

Several members of the community spoke against the sign’s removal and pleaded to initiate historic zoning both based on the building’s architectural significance and in honor of Robert E. Lee. (Sadowsky clarified that the commission had no authority to command the sign be rehung, however.) One of those citizens was asked to leave the room after shouting about dishonesty.

“This will come back in July. We will have police here. We’re not going to have any of this crap again here, ever,” said Sadowsky, referring to the outburst.

The commission will now decide whether to move forward with landmark designation for the school, which will ultimately have to be approved by City Council. Commissioners also asked that any new signage be approved by the city through a Certificate of Appropriateness, which they asked be sent via certified mail.

A memo about the sign’s removal is embedded below.

Download (PDF, 357KB)

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