With the Tyler ISD board set to take action Monday on possibly changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School to Lee High School, some are questioning whether the board would be violating its own policies if it approves the new name.
That's because the district's guidelines for naming facilities indicate buildings shall be named after a person who has served the district or community, any local, state or national hero or any local, state or national geographic area.
When Wade Washmon, the board's vice president, requested Wednesday that the name change be placed on the upcoming board agenda, he didn't provide specifics beyond the name proposed — Lee High School.
Board president Fritz Hager said they had discussed a broader agenda item that would allow other alternatives to be considered, "but Wade felt this specific course was the best compromise, had the greatest likelihood of support from other board members and would help resolve the conflict in our community over the issue."
Other board members who have indicated support for Lee include Andy Bergfeld and Jean Washington, while Patricia Nation has supported keeping the Robert E. Lee name.
Washington — who until now has remained mum on the issue — released a statement Friday saying the financial cost of changing the name wasn't worth it and it could mean the district would have to rename other schools.
"The name Lee I feel is suitable because we say Lee whenever someone asks about (who are we playing) and the answer is always Lee! Or any other thing asked we say 'Lee,'" the statement read. "I will say let’s move on!"
At a September school board meeting where the name issue was discussed, Bergfeld seemed to suggest the school could somehow retain its informal name.
"Is there a way to salvage the pride of Tyler Lee, while still having the fact it's not named after Robert E. Lee?" Bergfeld said at that meeting. "Tyler Lee in essence is its own school."
However, in May Bergeld said the name change movement had very little support overall in the community and "and any further discussion on the item would only serve to divide us even more."
Hager and board member Aaron Martinez have expressed support for changing the name entirely, and while board member Orenthia Mason first supported a change, she announced last month she would never support changing the name of the high school as long as she was on the board.
"I would not take away the names of John Tyler High School or Robert E. Lee High School at this time, or ever, as long as I serve on this board," Mason said during a May 17 news conference.
When reached Friday, Mason and Nation said they were not going to comment before the meeting.
Martinez on Friday said his position has not changed.
"This is an issue facing our entire community and we need to ensure the community is included. If we want to bring our students together, our community together, we need to implement a process to include them," Martinez said. "Unfortunately this agenda item will force the same name on our community just as this board did in the 1950s."
Washmon on Friday would not say why he chose the narrow request, which would only allow a name change for Lee High School, or if the name Lee is for Robert E. Lee.
Washmon said residents can find out his reasoning at Monday’s board meeting.
Policy and cost concerns
Tyler attorney Nick Pesina, who has spoken publicly to change the name from Robert E. Lee, said he and several other local attorneys do not believe the board has the authority to change the name to Lee, unassociated with a person, according to their own guidelines.
"The moment the Robert and the E. are dropped you’re essentially renaming or modifying the name of any school facility and as soon as you do that this policy is triggered," Pesina said. "Dropping the name and the initial, that’s a renaming so that begs the question if it’s being renamed it’s got to comply with (the policy)."
That could lead to legal challenges, Pesina said.
"My biggest concern is if the school board moves forward with this questionable action Tyler ISD could end up back in the court system," he said.
Superintendent Marty Crawford said he couldn't comment specifically, but he believes the board has the authority to add a qualifier, such as a motion to pass the name change with the condition the board adjusts the policy to suit.
A similar situation is currently unfolding in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where that school board is grappling with its own policy after voting to rename its Robert E. Lee Elementary School to Lee School.
The Tulsa board’s policy is similar to Tyler ISD’s in that it states the name must honor a person, organization, geographic area or academic theme of the school. The Tulsa board is in the process of recrafting the district’s policy for naming facilities after passing the measure to rename the school.
But that name change might be on hold, as the district now wants to delay renaming the school amid pushback that the new name isn't so new.
Tulsa Public Schools voted last month to rename the elementary school "Lee School," but many residents questioned why the school would keep the general's surname, saying the change wouldn't do enough to remove its Confederate origins.
The school board's split decision last month to use the name Lee School was widely criticized. Two board members who voted in favor of the Lee School name have since said they regret the process that led to the vote, which they and others felt didn't involve the school community.
Board members and community members who spoke against Tulsa's proposal questioned whether the name Lee School went far enough to erase the original name’s likely racist origins.
Those who supported it invoked tradition and argued that the school community thinks of itself as Lee, paying little mind to its original namesake.
Other districts across the state and the nation have removed the name of Confederate figures from schools in the past year.
San Antonio’s North East ISD changed the name of its Robert E. Lee High School to LEE, an acronym for Legacy of Educational Excellence, citing the cost savings by not moving toward a full change.
Costs of a name change also have been a concern for Tyler ISD, though costs associated with the change are unclear. The board is scheduled to receive an updated cost analysis Monday.
One of the biggest costs — the school's signage — wouldn't be a factor if a new name is decided before October. That's because the campus is undergoing a near total reconstruction and the new sign will be ordered in October. It is unclear how much it would cost to update uniforms, equipment and other supplies, given those items are replaced on a rotating schedule every few years.
Opposing viewpoints emerge
The issue of changing the school's name first was raised last summer and gained traction amid a national push to remove symbols of the Confederacy.
Opposing groups of community members brought the name issue up for discussion last summer, with more than 40 community members speaking at the first meeting, almost equally split on whether or not to change the name.
That prompted the TISD board to bring up a discussion of the matter in September, with many board members at that time signaling support for a name change. However, they indicated they wanted to put the issue aside until the current school year was over so as not to distract from the district's goal of academic achievement.
The issue resurfaced in mid-May during a board workshop when trustees reviewed the analysis of costs associated with a name change for one or both high schools. Trustees Orenthia Mason and Aaron Martinez requested the board place an action item for the name change on its next agenda. The item was placed on the June 7 agenda, but the request was withdrawn in May.
Even though the item was removed from the June agenda, about two dozen people — mostly Robert E. Lee students — spoke at the meeting urging a name change. One person spoke in favor of keeping the name.
Since then groups on both sides of the issue have organized efforts to try to persuade the board in favor of their stance. Neither group is in favor of the name Lee High School.
The Tyler ISD Parent Coalition made positive postcards for the board advocating for the name change. They said the change to Lee High School does not go far enough — they want all links to the Confederacy removed from the school.
The Save Our Name group organized a petition drive, collecting hundreds of names in person and online, and delivered the petitions to the district's administration Monday. They said they would continue to fight to ensure the full name Robert E. Lee remains intact.
Monday's board meeting
The district is expecting a large turnout for Monday’s meeting. With the possibility of dozens of residents wishing to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, the district will limit public comment to 2 minutes per person as it has done in the past. The cost analysis and consideration of the name change portions also are likely to be time consuming.
Crawford said the district is expecting a large crowd, possibly rivaling that of the September meeting where more than 40 people spoke. Crawford said the board room has a capacity of around 200, but the meeting is broadcast live on Tyler ISD TV for those who are unable to attend. The Tyler Paper also will be broadcasting the public comment and board discussion on TylerPaper.com and Facebook.
The action item is near the end of the agenda for the meeting and Hager said it would not be moved up. He expects the board discussion also could be lengthy.
The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Davidson Conference Room at the Jim Plyler Instructional Complex, 807 W. Glenwood Blvd. Residents wishing to speak during public comment must sign up to do so by 6:50 p.m.