TISD Board shares thoughts on changing name of Robert E. Lee High School

TISD Board shares thoughts on changing name of Robert E. Lee High School
Board member Orenthia Mason expressed openness to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. (Source: KLTV)
Board member Orenthia Mason expressed openness to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. (Source: KLTV)
Dr. Patricia Nation speaks during the board meeting. (Source: KLTV)
Dr. Patricia Nation speaks during the board meeting. (Source: KLTV)

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - The Tyler ISD Board of Trustees met for its regular meeting Monday. Part of the agenda was dedicated to board discussion surrounding the policy of naming facilities and buildings in the school district, and during that discussion, their comments spilled over into what they thought about the public's continued interest in keeping or changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School.

Six board members were present at the meeting, and several of them suggested they were open to changing the name of the school. Board members Orenthia Mason, Andy Bergfeld, Aaron Martinez and board president Fritz Hager all expressed comments in line with a possible name change. Though others noted that right now is not the time to take up the issue.

"By limiting our discussion to months when school is not in session, we'd maintain our focus on teaching and learning during the school months," board Vice President Wade Washmon said. "It would postpone discussion for a fraction of the time these schools have been in existence."

The audience was small compared to when the issue was discussed by the public at an August board meeting. People who attended to see the discussion filled about half the chairs in the meeting room. There were 14 people who spoke for and against a name change during the open comment section, and many of the comments reflected ideas expressed in August's meeting.

When the board opened their own discussion, member Orenthia Mason reflected on her time growing up during segregation. She said that changing the name, "is not changing history. This is making a positive impact today."

She and board President Fritz Hager expressed an openness to change the name. In a long statement, Hager outlined the history behind the name of the high school itself:

"Looking back through history, it is out of that ugly stew that came the decision to name this ... school. The one farthest from the black neighborhoods that would be predominantly white, after a man with no real connection to our city, no personal contribution to Tyler or its schools, and one who had become known as the face of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee, in the face of resisting integration, had a new meaning in 1957. Then later, we as a community doubled down to make no mistake as to what we meant by that. We chose the Rebels as the mascot, draped the school in a Confederate battle flag, we brought in a cannon and then watched as the school was plagued with racial unrest ... In my opinion that is the history of Robert E. Lee that is most relevant for our discussion tonight, not the nuances and complexities of a man who lived and died 150 years ago."

Hager would go on to say, "it is a name all too easy to associate with the meaning associated with those symbols we banned so long ago," referring to the flag and cannon and mascot the high school used in its early days, "which is why I'm open to changing the name of the school that I graduated from and that my oldest son graduated from."

Board member Andy Bergfeld did not offer a hard line personal opinion, but did have this to say as part of his prepared statement:

"One question we may want to consider is this: In a situation of compulsory education, in which by law you must attend the high school which you are zoned to regardless of race, is it right to force African American students to attend a school named after the most famous and honored Confederate figure from a war whose underlying cause was to protect the institution of slavery?"

He, like other board members, expressed that their job first and foremost is to provide for the education of all students in Tyler ISD. Board members expressed Monday that changing the name would probably not have a direct correlation with student performance, and that the movement to keep or change the name is largely an idea discussed by adults, not students.

"At this point, I think the names of the schools need to be left alone," board member Dr. Patricia Nation said. "Everybody needs to look to their hearts and not look to the name of a school for how they feel towards other people."

One of the questions raised by both Bergfeld and Hager pertains to the compulsory nature of a public school education. As reflected in Bergfeld's quote above, students do not get to choose which school they attend.

"I think there's a difference between statues, streets, city names and schools," Hager said to complement Bergfeld's statement. He continued, saying:

"We compel students to attend a certain school, and not only do they attend it, if they participate in extracurricular activities they wear that name on their chest. They're forced to identify with that school in a way that's different from when I drive down a street or look at a statue in a park or drive through a city and see a name."

Ultimately, the board expressed that their role in the community is to improve the educational experience for students in the school district. President Hager, in addition to expressing his openness to a name change, expressed that there are more important issues the board and the community need to address.

"There are many issues that I wish drew even a fraction of the community interest [as this]," he said. "Despite all of the improvements in Tyler ISD, we have a 28 point achievement gap between African American and white students ... that is an issue that has profound implications for those students for a lifetime."

The six board members addressed their comments openly and toward themselves primarily, but also faced out to the audience during their talks. There seemed a willingness to address the public directly with their words, and despite the contentious nature of the topic the board kept cool heads and voices as they made their points.

For the first part of the discussion, the policy nature of the agenda item seemed missing. Most comments were directed toward what board members thought about the public's ideas, and their own ideas, to keep or change the name. Initial comments were not directed at the actual policy of naming facilities in the district. But later in the discussion it was noted that under Texas law, members of a community cannot vote on the name of a school and that the issue must be addressed by elected board officials.

According to Tyler ISD policy, a facility may be named after a person who has served the district or community; after any local, state, or national heroic figure; after any local, state, or national geographic area. The Board of Trustees must approve the naming of all facilities, and the name should lend prestige and status to an institution of learning.

The board closed the discussion item without introducing any future action. It's unclear when the issue will be addressed again, but President Hager expressed that the board should not put aside the issue until the end of the school year.

Vice President Washmon thought differently, saying that further discussion and possible action on the issue would distract the board and school district from its primary goal of student achievement.

"We need to own this issue and deal with it in a way that's not reactionary," he said. "We have a unique and awesome responsibility to keep peace among our community, and I implore this board to act in a cool, calm and collected manner."

In the end, there appears to be a willingness from the board to address the issue formally, though it's unclear who will make the first move. After their comments during Monday's meeting, the biggest question that remains is no longer if the board will move to vote on the subject, but when.

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