The board of trustees of a North Texas school district voted unanimously last week to replace the Confederate namesake of an elementary campus to instead honor a revered educator, but the decision raised questions over the way they handled the matter — behind closed doors.
The Denton ISD school board approved renaming Robert E. Lee Elementary to instead honor the memory of Alice Moore Alexander, a lifelong area resident and respected teacher dubbed “a mother to us all.” She passed away in 2007 at the age of 100.
Prior to the vote, trustees “just returned from closed session and voted in front of four people,” according to the Denton Record-Chronicle, which voiced consternation that neither the meeting notice nor the agenda packet included any specific line item indicating that board members would consider a vote to rename Lee Elementary. The board package did, however, contain information about donated property to build a different elementary school.
The Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) guarantees transparency in government, preventing governmental bodies like school boards from hiding public business from the people. TOMA promises citizens a voice, usually exercised through public comment sessions held at meetings. It also requires trustees to post an agenda at least 72 hours before a school board meeting and in an accessible place to the general public.
There were no public comments on the night the school board discussed dropping Lee’s name from the elementary school in a closed session. The trustees resumed their open meeting to vote. School board President Mia Price later said people have had “ample opportunity” to address this issue during board meeting open forums. The district says it maintains a policy that allows residents to submit names year-round for existing and future school facilities.
Previously, two residents raised renaming Lee Elementary at the October board meeting. At the time, Price said: “This is on our radar.” She did not offer any future timeline for further discussion only that the trustee would “potentially address.” Yet, less a month later, Denton ISD trustees voted on a name change.
Subsequently, the Record-Chronicle expressed disappointment with the trustees. “Our complaint has nothing to do with the board’s decision to rename Lee Elementary School or the decision to honor Alexander posthumously. She was a good choice. Our complaint is how the school board went about its business in secret.”
They questioned if the board used the closed session to push through the name change and avoid controversy given the highly charged atmosphere to shun all things Confederate prompted by violence that erupted at a Charlottesville, Virginia, protest this summer. The district said, no, and asserted they sought naming a school after Alexander for years.
School district spokesman Mario Zavala told Breitbart Texas the Confederate re-branding issue, a hot button issue in schools across Texas and nationwide “did not really come up” in Denton ISD located roughly 40 miles northwest of Dallas.
Meanwhile, at the Denton County Courthouse a contentious debate rages over the fate of a 100-year-old Confederate memorial. On Friday, the county’s commissioners appointed a 10-person committee that asserted they will find an expeditious, appropriate, and fair solution to the monument controversy.
Open and closed meeting rules, also listed in Texas Government Code (Chapter 551), allow school boards to deliberate behind closed doors on matters like litigation, settlements, contracts, real estate, plus personnel matters regarding “the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of a public officer or employee.”
Price maintained the renaming process required trustees examine a person’s background and contributions to the district, asserting it would be inappropriate “to vet a person in public” apparently, even when the person died a decade ago. Likewise, the school district’s attorney said the evaluation of an employee could extend to the name of that employee being used on a school building.
Accordingly, the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) permits trustees also to meet in private over prospective gifts negotiations when deliberating in an open meeting “would have a detrimental effect on the board’s position in negotiations with a third person.” They can discuss student discipline behind closed doors unless a parent makes a written request for an open hearing. Same goes for matters regarding personally identifiable student information for minors. Other areas that fall into closed meeting status include medical or psychiatric records, security device, emergency management, and assessment instruments.
Interestingly, TASB literature states that, with a few exceptions, TOMA “does not require a board to go into a closed meeting on any matter,” adding, “Even if a subject falls within one of the limited statutory exceptions, those exceptions are permissive, not mandatory.”
Zavala stated, “I can tell you, the district tries to be as transparent as possible.” He said Denton ISD trustees also met in a closed session two years ago when deliberating over naming a newly built high school for its former superintendent, Ray Braswell.
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