The discussion was at times contentious, but overall, Dallas Independent School District trustees were unified in their desire to change the names of four schools currently named for Confederate leaders.
A fifth school, John B. Hood Middle School, changed its name to Piedmont G.L.O.B.A.L. Academy last year.
As expected, there was plenty of spleens vented during the time afforded for public comment at the beginning of the meeting. In the end, those speaking about the subject were fairly evenly split for and against.
“Your resolution creates a new and separate set of rules, but only for us,” Stonewall parent David Blewett, said, insisting that the rules in the resolution were unfair. The resolution created a method to expedite the name changes, a change from the provided process in district policy.
Blewett, who is white, said the rules created inequality.
“Didn’t we already discuss separate but equal?” he said, adding that the resolution created “new and separate set of rules, only for us.”
“You should table it so we can slow down and work together to resolve the issues in the right way,” he added. “Please table this resolution.”
Fellow Stonewall parent Brandon Lee said he could see both sides, but an incident over the summer crystalized the issue for him.
During vacation away from Dallas, his child was wearing an “I (heart) Stonewall Jackson” t-shirt from school and was approached by someone and asked if she really approved of Stonewall Jackson. Lee was faced with explaining what the t-shirt meant.
“I don’t want to have to do that again,” Lee said. “I don’t want my children to have to do that.”
Lee also acknowledged that the school has also worked hard to go beyond what its name stands for.
“We’ve done the best we can with the name we’ve been given,” he said.
Stonewall parent David Coon decried the name change, saying, “Changing names now after 80 years is like changing the name of dog or cow to something else.”
He felt that the discussion adults were having was beginning to affect the children who attend Stonewall, including his child, who worried that about the name change.
“History is history,” Coon said, adding that as a scriptwriter for the show “Cheaters,” he could recognize politicking and hyperbolic writing. “People should grow up and get over it.”
“History isn’t going anywhere,” countered fellow parent Seth Laughlin, who used his time to speak out in favor of the resolution. “History is in the history books.”
Mary Ann Parrish, another Stonewall parent, began a petition to urge the district to change the school’s name.
“The name, which is associated with pain and hatred, does not reflect our great schools,” she said. “It’s time to change the name, that would help the wounds of the past.”
But perhaps the fiercest words came from former Stonewall parent George Davidson, who removed his child from the school.
Davidson, who is African American, said, “I stand before you today for all the little brown and black faces that walk into Stonewall Jackson.”
He said his child’s experience was not inclusive and was full of racist incidents that included references to watermelon, and an incident where a student licked his son and commented that he didn’t taste like chocolate. His child was called the n-word, he said.
After urging the board to pass the resolution, he said, “Imagine this was your baby, having these experiences, you would want this, too.”
Rachel Ball-Phillips, a history professor at Southern Methodist University, spoke both as a Stonewall parent and as a history expert. After explaining how the experts feel, she also urged that the board pass the resolution — with one suggestion.
“We’re in a new historical moment,” she said. “Professional historians should be part of this process.”
When the board took up the matter, trustee Dustin Marshall, with two schools slated for name changes, asked for two amendments — one to extend the length of time schools had to come up with new name suggestions, and another to allow schools who have already begun the process to continue if they wish, instead of starting all over again.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that these schools should be renamed,” Marshall said in his opening remarks, adding that he felt that children understood that naming a building or school after a person is an honor.
“We clearly live in a world where hate is on display and hate and white supremacy is being normalized,” he added, saying this was part of the impetus for changing the names of the schools now, so as not to be a part of that.
Marshall also took pains to reiterate that while there was a discussion about other schools that might need further research, there was never any wholesale Dallas ISD board support to rename any other schools than the four in the resolution.
Marshall said he appreciated Lee Elementary’s grassroots community effort to be proactive. Lee began the process earlier, holding publicized meetings to get input. That input has resulted in a proposed name already, and the paperwork is already in order to begin that process.
The new name would be Geneva Heights Elementary, after the neighborhood the school sits in. Since Lee Elementary has already advanced this far, Marshall said he felt amending the resolution to allow the school the option to move forward was fair.
He also asked to amend the timeline. The resolution required a timeline that would allow schools a scant month or so to form committees, get public input, and get name suggestions in time for a December school board meeting vote.
“I don’t think we need to impose such aggressive timeline,” Marshall said. “The timeline seems punitive to me.”
Marshall said that as contentious and charged as the debate will be, schools need more time than a month to engage the community in thoughtful, productive discussion. He asked that the resolution be changed to allow for final decisions at a February 2018 board meeting instead.
“I don’t want to burden parent volunteers with such an expedited timeline,” he said.
Both of Marshall’s amendments passed unanimously.
Marshall also said he understood how entrenched Stonewall was in the community — from the Stonewall Gardens to various programs, the school is branded around the name.
But trustee Bernadette Nutall, while agreeing that the names needed to be changed, reminded the board that the work didn’t end there.
“Until we start changing some policies that affect African-Americans and Latinos, it’s just a name change,” said Nutall. “People change, not names.”
“This is an opportunity for Dallas ISD to do a lot of healing,” Trustee Joyce Foreman agreed.
Nutall said she was reluctant to support the resolution’s restriction that required schools to not submit names that were just shortened versions of the original objectionable name.
She asked for the policy to be amended to strike that provision.
“These are adults,” she said. “I don’t think they’re gonna come back with some crazy name that we the on the board cannot support.”
“People gotta change,” she said, reiterating that more substantive changes than name changes will have to happen to change the racial culture in Dallas ISD.
“I actually have a lot of faith in the community,” Foreman said in agreement. “Get these names changed soon and move on to real issues.”
To Marshall and board president Dan Micciche, the language Nutall took exception to was there to provide guidance to the parent and community volunteers tasked with forming committees and suggesting names.
“If the board as a body makes a decision that the schools who are named after Confederate generals should be changed, the change should be real,” Micciche said. “If the community came back with basically the same name, that wouldn’t be acceptable to us. We would find that to be circumventing the intent of renaming the schools.”
“It’s a little bit surprising that some us are in favor of making the name change,” he continued, “but are OK with the name coming back that still represents the same history and same person.”
“What I recall from the board briefing discussion was the key component was to waive the timeline,” Pinkerton said, siding with Nutall. “It’s part of the process that the board has the right to vote against any name.”
The motion ultimately failed, 5-4, with Blackburn, Nutall, Foreman, and Pinkerton voting for it.
With the changes hammered out, the board then turned to discussing the resolution as a whole.
“I’m glad that this city has had this difficult debate on these issues,” Marshall said, adding that he’s glad the conversations have started and that he hopes they continue to be productive.
“I hope that the same passion and intensity on this issue will also be brought to student outcomes,” he said.
Trustee Edwin Flores said he was actually against the idea of changing the names at first — Cabell Elementary falls in his district — but that further investigation into who Cabell was spurred him to change his mind.
Pointing out that the four buildings in question were built after Brown vs. the Board of Education, and that the names were “purposeful.”
“I was completely against this,” he said. “I thought, ‘It’s not going to change an iota of student achievement.’”
He said that he won’t be voting to change the names of any more schools after this, and echoed Nutall’s earlier sentiments.
“Student outcomes will not change until adult behavior changes,” he said.
The cost of changing the names on all four schools would be less than $150,000, said Stephanie Elizalde, Dallas ISD’s chief of school leadership, said. That cost would include signage, dedication plaques, names on artwork and murals, and other places the names or logos are placed on the structures.
Flores said during his conversation with district Chief Operations Officer Scott Layne revealed that bond money already set aside to improve each school’s exterior could cover much of the cost associated with the name change, as well.
“Most of these expenses could be covered by bond money,” Layne agreed.
“I think we can mitigate to the vast majority of it,” Flores said, adding that district leaders should be reaching out to community leaders for donations.