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AISD pumps brakes on Confederacy renamings

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

The initiative to change the names of Austin school facilities bearing the titles of Confederate military personnel lost steam at the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees’ Jan. 8 work session. The item was scheduled to come to a vote at the board’s Feb. 26 meeting, but the consensus Monday was to drop that date in order to give district staff time to re-evaluate policy and procedure.

Under current school regulations, a school facility can be renamed prior to the standard 50-year expiration if the name falls out of compliance with the district’s core beliefs and values. In the midst of a nationwide movement against Confederate monuments and symbols last fall, the school administration proposed the renaming of the John T. Allan facility, Zachary Taylor Fulmore Middle School, Sidney Lanier Early College High School, John H. Reagan Early College High School and Eastside Memorial Early College High School at the Johnston Campus (named for Albert Sidney Johnston) at the board’s Nov. 13 work session.

The gusto with which some board members had received the idea last year seems to have waned over the holiday break. Board President Kendall Pace, who had tweeted in August “Schools named = monuments. Time is now” in response to the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va., said at Monday’s meeting that she had grown concerned about these renamings leading the district down a slippery slope. “Is it an association with slavery? Is it an association with the Confederacy?” Pace asked at the meeting. “How far back are we righting wrongs?”

Although staff had done historical research into the circumstances behind the namings of each of the facilities in question, community feedback had not yet been summarized, which also worried Pace. Trustee Yasmin Wagner, who at the November session had pointed to how some of the facilities in question had been given their Confederate names during the Jim Crow era as a means of sending African-American students and families a message, agreed with Pace on Monday that this effort lacked well-defined criteria. “Where does it begin and end?” Wagner asked. “Not really having a clear methodology for how or why we change a name beyond just a high-level policy is troubling to me.”

In November, staff had explained that it had selected the five facilities based on the namesakes’ affiliations with the Confederate military.

Unlike when the board voted to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School (renamed Lee Elementary School) in 2016, this proposal came from the school administration and not the school communities, which also bothered some trustees. Trustee Ann Teich, the only trustee to abstain from the vote on the Lee Elementary change, had been described at the time as “tone-deaf” by an Austin American-Statesman opinion piece.

At Monday’s work session, Teich repeatedly rebuked this characterization of being out of touch and emphasized the emotional as well as financial cost of changing the names of the five facilities. “I still to this day do not appreciate being called “tone-deaf,” Teich said. “I still think this process is moving too fast. The complexity of this process has not been recognized.”

Teich had brought a Lanier scarf with her that she said she had purchased from the high school’s soccer team. “They don’t really care,” she said. “They want to keep Lanier. They like that name.”

The total estimated cost of replacing signage, uniforms and other materials for the facilities stands at $322,000. Taking the lead from the discussion, Superintendent Paul Cruz said that rather than proceeding as planned, more time would be taken for the policy to be reviewed. After any changes to the renaming policy are recommended, staff will develop a more detailed process to reflect the updated policy. No timeline has yet been set for this change in course.

Trustees Amber Elenz and Edmund Gordon were absent.

Photo courtesy of AISD.

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