By Charlotte Aguilar
Houston ISD trustees voted 5-4 along racial lines Thursday night to begin the process of changing the names of Sidney Lanier and Albert Sidney Johnston middle schools and 6-3 to rename Jefferson Davis High School because of their namesakes’ connections to the Confederacy.
The three African-American and two Latino trustees supported the change at the middle schools, while the four Anglo trustees opposed it. District V Trustee Mike Lunceford, an Anglo, joined in supporting the Davis change.
Those campus communities will now begin the process of selecting new names, along with other campuses ordered to change their names at the January meeting.
The district estimates the name changes will cost about $2 million – a point often raised by opponents who pointed out the $107 million shortfall HISD says it’s facing due to the state-mandated funding system that requires large districts to turn back its tax dollars to support smaller districts.
An ethnically diverse group, including a number of Lanier students, pleaded with the board to retain Lanier’s name, emphasizing that he was a noted poet who served as a private in the Confederate army.
A former parent, Elaine Mut, spoke eloquently of Lanier being a symbol of redemption. “His name does not belong among Confederate icons and leaders,” she said.
But two African-American trustees, including Jolanda Jones, who was elected last November to represent Lanier, disputed his qualifications to have a school named for him.
“It’s personal to me,” said a visibly emotional Jones, who recited a list of crimes against slaves, including rape and murder. She said her research showed Lanier had willingly served as a Confederate soldier, and later recited a poem by Lanier that used the N-word.
Skillern-Jones, whose son attended Lanier, praised the school, but reiterated that Lanier had voluntarily served in the Confederate Army.
Although Jones had appeared to have her mind made up from the outset of board discussion of the issue in January, she agreed to hold a town hall meeting on Feb. 3. InstantNews asked her by email: “Is there a chance what you can hear can change your mind, or have you already decided that all eight schools in the proposal should have their names changed and are viewing this more as an opportunity for you to present your point-of-view?”
She responded: “This community meeting is not a forum for me. It was requested by some interested constituents and issue-interested persons.
“My final decision will not be made until I vote, if ever.”
But it was clear Thursday her decision had been made. She claimed students at Lanier who favored the name change had been bullied, and referred derisively to “white people” on the board and the community, referring to “people who are just perpetuating an oppressive system.”
“It’s OK when they are white people schools,” Jones asked, “but (not) when it’s other schools?”
Trustee Anna Eastman, one of the four Anglo board members, who represents Davis HS, responded with a plea to tone down the rhetoric. She had failed in a motion to allow Lanier to decide in a “democratic” process whether it wanted the name change, and her message from her constituents at Davis HS to retain its name fell on deaf ears.
“Davis is not a white person’s school,” she said. “I would respectfully ask that assumptions not be made that we are racist, that we don’t care about people…Going forward, stick to the issues in our debates and dialogue.”
“Racists never want to be call racist,” Jones responded. “If you’re not racist, I’m not talking to you, and you shouldn’t be offended…(there’s) never ever been meaningful change without revolution,” Jones said, “so embrace it.”
Lunceford said he favored naming schools after neighborhoods, and Eastman added she supported numbered or place-named schools, as well.
There was also mention by Skillern-Jones and Eastman that, to be consistent, schools such as Oran Roberts and Mark Twain ES should be considered for name changes, since both men had served in the Confederate Army.
Carnegie-Vanguard sports to end
The board voted 5-4 to ban specialty schools – non-comprehensive high schools – from having UIL teams. Carnegie Vanguard HS had been the only specialty school to have UIL sports, and if a final vote on the matter succeeds next month, sports will end in 2017-’18.
Several students and members of the CVHS community had argued that it was impractical logistically for students to participate in sports at their zoned high schools and athletics were a crucial component of the highly ranked school.