Austin ISD Still Stymied by Confederate Names
A school by any other name ...
Nine months after the Austin Independent School District board voted to change the names of five district facilities named after Confederate figures, just one has received approval for a new name – and it isn't even an active school. At the board's meeting Monday night, Nov. 26, trustees approved a motion to rename the former Allan Elementary School after Anita Ferrales Coy, who worked as a principal at the school and later as a district administrator for over 20 years. The vote passed 6-1-1, with District 3 Trustee Ann Teich voting against and D4 Trustee Kristin Ashy (who was sworn in earlier that evening) abstaining.
In a prepared statement, Teich explained the motivation behind her vote: Ashy and D1 Trustee LaTisha Anderson, who was also sworn in Monday, needed more time to get up to speed on the discussion. Teich also said, "I can't, in good conscience, justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on renaming schools" when the district faces a budget crisis – although she conceded "if my fellow trustees and the taxpayers who support them are comfortable spending that kind of money, they will act accordingly."
What "kind of money" it will actually cost to rename the facilities has been central to the conversation on the dais; Teich floated a figure of $400,000 for Lanier High School, which is well above what AISD staff has estimated. District officials initially estimated the average cost at about $77,000, and on Tuesday told the Chronicle that the range would be between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on the facility. (Allan, which isn't a school, will cost less, whereas high schools would cost more.) Special Assistant to the Superintendent Brian Hill said Monday that these costs could be "phased in" over time, lessening their impact, but acknowledged the district had not conducted an individual analysis for each campus – that will come only after the board approves its renaming.
The trustees were initially set to vote on four name changes: Allan, which is now used as a space for the district's Alternative Learning Center; Sidney Lanier High School in North Central Austin (Teich's district), named for a Confederate poet; Fulmore Middle School on South Congress, named for a soldier in the Confederate army; and John H. Reagan Early College High School in Northeast Austin, named for the Confederacy's postmaster general. A naming decision for a fifth facility, the former Johnston High School (named for a Confederate general), has been delayed until Eastside Memorial High School is relocated out of there next year.
Trustees reached consensus in an October work session on renaming Allan and Fulmore, but only Allan was voted on Monday night. District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias appeared ready to make a motion that would bring the Fulmore change to a vote, but awkwardly backtracked, citing an unwritten school board rule that suggests such motions should be brought by the trustee who represents the school in question. That would be board president and D6 Trustee Geronimo Rodriguez; reached by phone Tuesday, Rodriguez said he didn't bring Fulmore to the dais because of "outstanding questions surrounding the renaming process," but said the board had committed to renaming the schools, and a part of its governance role "is to continue moving forward with these decisions." He said subsequent name changes could be voted on individually to give the board more time for discussion and not have the issue dominate an entire meeting. "It's a good opportunity to have an honest conversation about these tough topics," he said. "Every time we're having these conversations, you're seeing the board model a culture of respect that we expect from the whole district."
But the board's continued delays have frustrated members of the AISD School Renaming Task Force, who expressed disappointment and confusion over the recommendations made by the Lanier and Reagan campus advisory councils, which essentially declined to come up with new names. The 21-person task force was guided by an outside facilitator through three meetings in April to develop the criteria each CAC would use in choosing potential new names. Several task force members, and trustees who observed the process, praised the way the committee went about its work and the rubric it produced; one task force member, Gabriel Estrada, said the April sessions were "some of most productive meetings" he's had with the district. "We all felt good about the work we had done when we concluded at the end of April," he said.
But when the task force reconvened in September to review the recommendations from each CAC, Estrada said, the group was "dumbfounded" when they saw that Reagan and Lanier had disregarded – or misunderstood – the guidelines. Although the Lanier CAC ranked North Central Early College High School as their top choice for a new name, the group wrote that its third choice – Lanier Early College High School – "maintains the support of the majority of students, alumni, the community, and a large portion of current staff." Similarly, the Reagan CAC wrote in their report that "renaming" the school to Reagan Early College High School was favored among the group by "an incontestably large margin."
Those recommendations prompted six members of the task force to write an open letter to AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz and the board of trustees expressing their disappointment and writing that "the process, as interpreted by some campuses, has not served the best interests of the Superintendent or the school communities." One signer, Roxanne Evans, criticized the way the task force's work was presented to individual campuses. "The district should have been explicit in saying we are going to change the names," Evans said. "I was puzzled by the Lanier and Reagan recommendations, because it seemed the campuses were exerting more authority than expected." The agenda for the December school board meeting has not been set, but it presumably will include another Item pertaining to school name changes.