The Austin Chronicle

AISD to Consider Ridding School Names of Confederate Legacy

By Richard Whittaker, November 20, 2015, News

Austin Independent School District trustees could adopt a new policy for renaming campuses as early as Nov. 23. That's good news for advocates who want to wipe the Confederate legacy from school signs. Now comes the complex part: what to change those names to?

Next Monday's full board meeting will not see any campuses renamed, but could see trustees approve a mechanism that allows for renaming upon public request. The details are currently being drafted by staff from recommendations drawn up by the board's policy subcommittee that met on Nov. 13: According to District 6 Trustee Paul Saldaña that was "a much calmer conversation" than the heated Nov. 3 meeting of the full board, when sparks flew over this issue (see "Tempers Flare as AISD Board Tackles Confederate Legacy," Nov. 13). Saldaña stressed that the board is concentrating on framing language that is "a little clearer" than the current, more vaguely worded policy, and not focusing on individual campuses yet.

Most pivotal was creating a mechanism for starting the renaming process, with District 4 Trustee Julie Cowan suggesting a pathway whereby community members – including current and former students, PTAs, and Campus Advisory Councils – can trigger the switch. Some specific suggestions didn't make the cut. For example, District 3 Trustee Ann Teich proposed new language that would not only bar the names of Confederates, but to avoid any future controversy, would also take military personnel and politicians off the list. Saldaña said that proposal has been loosened, so the campus can only be named after "somebody that is respectful of all different races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds."

The discussion is not limited to just historic figures. During the hearing, district staff raised the issue of naming facilities after donors. The previous board started ruminations on the controversial proposal with no conclusions reached, but for the current board it becomes a more pressing issue for the so-far unnamed Performing Arts Center. Historically, it's been easier to get corporate sponsors if they can put their brand on the building, but Saldaña said that discussion had "given [him] a little bit of heartburn."

When it comes to campuses and the Confederacy, Teich has previously called switching names "set dressing," and said the district should spearhead a deeper discussion about race in Austin, by constructing conversation spaces and launching cross-city field trips so that communities can truly understand one another. However, when asked about the draft language, she said, "I'm OK with it. That's the policy part. The other big, controversial part is acting on it."

So far, of the four AISD campuses named after Confed­er­ate figures (Robert E. Lee Elementary, Sidney Lanier High, John H. Reagan High, and Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus), Teich noted that only one community has been vociferous in calling for change, and that's Lee. Community member Dave Junker has been part of that campaign, but stressed that coming up with a replacement title has not been their priority. However, staff is currently examining trustee inquiries as to whether the issue of renaming Lee could be taken up as early as the Nov. 23 meeting. If that happens, Junker said that various names have been spitballed, including artist Elisabet Ney; Great Depression photographer and UT instructor Russell Lee; and Wheeler's Grove, the original name for nearby Eastwoods Park and site of some of Austin's first Juneteenth celebrations. Then there's a suggestion to just call it Lee, to retain a link to the campus' past while still rejecting its namesake, much as when Johnston became Eastside. Junker said, "I think a lot of us could get behind that."

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