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School board approves Confederate school renaming process

Tuesday, February 27, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees voted 7-2 last night to approve an action initiated by district staff last fall to rename five school facilities named after Confederate military personnel.

Deliberation on whether to change the names for the John T. Allan facility, Zachary Taylor Fulmore Middle School, Sidney Lanier High School, John H. Reagan High School and Eastside Memorial High School (Albert Sidney Johnston Campus) has been a roller coaster of controversy. It began last fall during a national wave of Confederate statues and monuments being demolished, simmered over winter break to the point of being postponed indefinitely on consensus during a Jan. 8 board work session, and then returned with a vengeance after sole African-American trustee Edmund Gordon publicly called the board “spineless” for its ambivalence during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech.

Trustee Ann Teich asked for a formal censure of Gordon in response to his remarks, but the board officers denied the request, with President Kendall Pace explaining in a statement at the Feb. 12 work session that every board member should feel that “his or her opinion should be well considered by all on the dais.” At that work session, the board made a decision to not wait any longer and put the item to a vote at the Feb. 26 meeting.

Last night, Superintendent Paul Cruz shared the staff’s amended recommendation, which excluded Lanier and Fulmore from the vote based on their namesakes’ more minor roles in the Confederate military. He clarified that staff still proposed that they would be under consideration for future name changes, but that the district would conduct a more thorough community engagement process with those school communities.

In spite of this recommendation, Gordon made a motion to scrap all of the names as originally proposed and initiate renaming for all five facilities. “The symbolism of Confederate service was once consistent with the views and policies of this school district and a broad sector of the Austin population and is one of the main reasons that these schools remained named after these individuals,” Gordon said at the meeting. “However, the symbolism surrounding these names cannot now be viewed as consistent with the district’s core beliefs and values.”

Other trustees voiced their support for the motion. Trustee Jayme Mathias applauded a decision that looked to the future, and Trustee Yasmin Wagner said that at the end of the day this issue was about the spirit in which many of these schools were named: in her opinion, white resistance to the civil rights movement.

Trustee Cindy Anderson said that this vote would be the start of the district naming its schools in a way that better reflected the students they served. Out of the 102 AISD schools named after individuals, 76 percent are named after white historical figures (including the five Confederates), whereas Latino and African-American figures only make up 12 percent respectively, with no other ethnicity being represented. For comparison, 2016 data shows the AISD student population is 8 percent African-American, 27 percent white and 58 percent Hispanic.

Trustee Julie Cowan said she wished that the district had been more strategic with how it went about initiating this process to begin with. She said that the school communities involved were at a disadvantage in participating in the future of their schools. Teich maintained her opposition to the proposal, reiterating comments she had made previously including financial concerns. She challenged the community members who had spoken in support of approval during public comment as well as the trustees who were behind the motion to foot the estimated $77,000 per school themselves. “I think you should put your money where your mouth is,” she said.

The vote passed 7-2, with Cowan and Teich dissenting. Teich had promised before the question was called that if it passed, she would make a motion to rename Stephen F. Austin and James Bowie high schools, which were named for people who were not affiliated with the Confederate military but were slaveholders. When Teich attempted to make good on her word, Pace ruled her request out of order, so Teich packed up her things and left in protest before the meeting was adjourned.

Photo courtesy of AISD.

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