Wednesday, February 14, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

School board still split on school renamings

At its Feb. 12 work session, the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees formally discussed the possibility of renaming several Confederate-affiliated facilities. It was the first time it has done so since tensions between some trustees had culminated in an attempt at African-American Trustee Edmund Gordon’s censure. Having postponed the item once before, the board considered doing so again, but it ultimately decided to stay on schedule and vote on the administration’s proposal at the regular Feb. 26 meeting.

Trustee Ann Teich had made the request to censure Gordon after he made public remarks at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event disparaging the board’s decision to indefinitely postpone a vote on the renamings of the John T. Allan facility, Zachary Taylor Fulmore Middle School, Sidney Lanier High School, John H. Reagan High School and Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus at a Jan. 8 work session when he had been absent. At this week’s session, board President Kendall Pace read a statement drafted by board officers as to why that request had been denied.

“Even when on the losing side of a proposition, a debate, or a dialogue, officers believe that every member should feel that his or her opinion should be well considered by all on the dais,” Pace said at the meeting. “Making negative statements about one another in public breaks our agreed-upon protocol as stated in the board member handbook.”

This effort to bury the hatchet seemed successful as the board engaged in an hourlong discussion free of commotion on the specifics of the criteria to be followed for future facility renamings. At one point, it appeared that Gordon and Teich would reach a compromise when Gordon indicated that he considered education about the tragic legacy attached to these names more important than the removal of the names themselves.

“Would you be comfortable then if this board committed to directing the superintendent to have conversations about the history of these individuals?” Teich asked. “Are you saying that you would then support not renaming the schools?”

Gordon clarified that what he meant was that in his opinion the board and administration had demonstrated in the past that they were not capable of properly executing such initiatives, and that it was more for lack of a better option he thought the schools should be renamed. He compared the resistance to the current proposal to the community blowback in 1991 when William B. Travis High School took down the Confederate battle flag from its campus.

“These kinds of issues, (not) to minimize school pride, but they go way beyond school pride,” Gordon said. “This is about human dignity. This is about the act of slavery.”

In response, Teich said that she would most likely abstain. “I may have to recuse myself totally from the vote,” she said. “I don’t find that the Lanier name is extremely offensive. We all knew when I went to school there who he was. We studied his history. Did we make a big deal about it? Probably not. Did we learn about the Confederacy, the Civil War and the causes leading up to it? Indeed we did.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a report that showed only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors surveyed identified slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War. In that vein, Trustee Cindy Anderson suggested that if the schools were renamed, plaques could be placed on-site to display the old names and encourage continued conversation on why they were changed.

Although most trustees did not announce which side of the issue they stood on, the majority agreed that another work session would not contribute anything new to the deliberation and that it would be appropriate to arrive at a verdict later this month.

Photo courtesy of AISD.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

AISD Board of Trustees: This is the governing board of the Austin Independent School District. The board is comprised of two at-large members and seven district representatives.

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