Controversy erupted at the cash-strapped Houston Independent School District (ISD) Thursday when the board of trustees voted to change the names of seven of its schools originally named for Confederate war figures. At issue is how trustees handled the process, which left many Houstonians feeling disenfranchised and worried about the astronomical costs associated with the name changes. Some may sue.
This comes at a time Houston ISD has a $107 million budgetary shortfall and trustees estimated that name changes (for a total of eight schools) will incur roughly $2 million dollars of additional taxpayer debt. The actual costs may be much higher. Breitbart Texas’ Lana Shadwick reported a Lanier watchdog group said taxpayer costs to rebrand just one school, Sidney Lanier Middle School, came in at around $500,000.
The meeting’s tumult involved the renaming of Richard Dowling Middle School, located in the Hiram Clarke community. A large Hiram Clarke delegation sported T-shirts supporting their pick for the new namesake — the late Carrie McAfee, a community member and the first female principal of a comprehensive high school in the State of Texas. However, the board chose another Houstonian not from Hiram Clarke, the late community activist Audrey H. Lawson.
During the public comments, Hiram Clarke resident Linda Scurlock questioned irregularities that appeared to cut the community out of the renaming process. “They did not get in touch with the community as to what person we wanted,” noted McAfee supporter Pastor Ray Washington. Others expressed opposition to the vote saying the community, which was supposed to be a part of the renaming process, was shut out.
McAfee’s supporters said they submitted her name but alleged Wanda Adams (District 9) overlooked it in favor of Lawson. Hiram Clarke residents implored the board to shelve the vote on Dowling for now.
It appeared the community’s preference was known and ignored. Adams read a letter from Lawson’s widower, the Rev. Bill Lawson who acknowledged, “When I learned that this proposal was in direct opposition to the desires of the school, I withdrew her name. People who loved and supported Audrey pushed on anyway.”
Perfect way to honor a family who has done – and continues to do – so much for our community https://t.co/Vov0rMWhRl
— Rodney Ellis (@RodneyEllis) May 13, 2016
Last June, Breitbart Texas reported that Texas state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) originally pushed the renaming of six Houston ISD campuses in a letter to Rhonda Skillern-Jones, then school board president, after the tragic hate-crime shootings in South Carolina which left nine black parishioners dead. A subsequent fervor swept the nation to dump every Confederate symbol and figure.
One of the most visible and contentious rebranding skirmishes in Houston ISD came out of Sidney Lanier Middle School, which the board voted to rename it as Bob Lanier Middle School, for a former Houston mayor.
#HISD Trustees approve changing Sidney Lanier MS name to Bob Lanier Middle School, in honor of the former mayor, effective 2016-17 school yr
— Houston ISD (@HoustonISD) May 12, 2016
Lanier community members opposed the name change, asserting the board violated its own procedural rules, although trustee Jolanda Jones, attorney and reality-TV personality, ignited a racially charged fire over the rebrandings at a previous board meeting.
On Thursday, not everyone opposed the name changes but felt the money could be better spent on education-related items for students. Meanwhile, others may sue.
In a May 11 letter to Houston ISD lawyer David Thompson, attorney Daniel Goforth urged the school board to stop its “unauthorized path” to renaming the campuses schools or his clients in the community may “initiate legal proceedings.”
Goforth alleged the board violated its own regulations by not identifying the funding source and dollar amounts for renaming these campuses. He asserted this will cost millions to Houston taxpayers and it denied the public of its right to know “how its money is being spent on education.”
“The Board was required to alert the people of Houston of that fact before it chose to incur this fiscal burden—with possibly no funding source to carry it,” Goforth stated.
He also revealed that in emails, “a boardmember strategically presented the agenda to rename the schools through improper measures because, she admits, it “wouldn’t have made it to the agenda any other way.” Goforth noted: “deceiving the taxpayers this way doesn’t protect our community; it harms our community.”
The letter highlighted the Hiram Clarke community’s concerns. Goforth wrote: “…the Board portrayed to the public that its choice for the proposed replacement names reflected community consensus. But in actuality, the community’s preferences were systematically rejected in favor of a result predetermined by [Houston] ISD.”
Wayne Dolcefino, spokesman for a cross-section of the disenfranchised Houston ISD community, told Breitbart Texas by email: “Congratulations HISD Board. In just a few months you have created racial divisions that never existed, angered neighborhoods throughout Houston, and broke your own rules to try and cram unwanted and expensive actions just for revenge sake. What a great lesson for our kids. Now you will waste more taxpayer money defending an illegal vote.”
The new names take effect in the fall. The high school named for Confederate Army Commander Robert E. Lee will instead honor lifelong educator Margaret Long Wisdom. The middle school named for Brigadeer Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson will renamed to Yolanda Black Navarro Middle School of Excellence, in honor of the woman who founded the Association for the Advancement of Mexican-Americans.
A few schools will be named for their neighborhoods. Albert Sidney Johnston Middle School will become the Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School. John Reagan High School will be known as Heights High. The school bearing the name of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis will transform into Northside High. In March, the board voted to change an eighth school, Grady Middle School, to Tanglewood.
Two board members abstained from voting Thursday. Jones was absent.
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.