A group of parents, teachers and people who live around Robert E. Lee Elementary school are sending a formal message to the Austin school board: rename the school after someone who was not a prominent member of the Confederate States of America.
Every public school in Texas is supposed to have some type of Campus Advisory Council (CAC), and the one for Robert E. Lee Elementary in Hyde Park voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend the Austin school board approve changing the school’s name.
Ryan Bates is a parent of Lee students and co-chair of the Council. He says naming the school after a Confederate general was intended to be a political act when the school was opened in 1939, blocks away from the line that divided Austin’s whites from its black and Hispanic population.
“[E]stablishing a new elementary school and naming it for Robert E. Lee at the request of the Daughters of the Confederacy was nothing other than putting a flag in the ground and saying this is a community that’s for whites only,” Bates says.
The vote came after the CAC held a public forum last week, inviting people to speak or submit written comments. Bates says roughly two-thirds of the responses were in favor of changing the name.
People have opposed re-labeling buildings named after Confederate figures for a variety of reasons. Some say it's an attempt to "rewrite history" and that political and military leaders should be judged within the context of the historical era in which they lived. Others have said those offended by the name are being overly sensitive or too "politically correct." Some believe renaming buildings will create a slippery slope in which a wider range of buildings must be scrubbed of their titles because of their namesake's transgressions.
Bates says the CAC heard these arguments but still wanted to rid the name from their neighborhood school.
"If there is a population for whom this name remains exclusionary, even despite the welcoming-ness of our community, then we need to change that name," Bates says.
The vote by the CAC does not force the school district to do anything. But Austin school board trustee Paul Saldaña says the board changed its policy last year to make it easier for schools to be renamed.
"[Superintendent Paul Cruz] reviews that and then he prepares an action item for the full board on consideration on a vote," Saldaña says. "At the end of the day, the Board has final authority on any potential school name changes.”
There’s no timeline yet on when that might happen, but three other Austin schools are also named after Confederate figures. Earlier this month, the Houston Independent School District voted to rename all four of its campuses that had Confederate names.