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Austin School Board, Communities Clash Over New Names For Schools Linked To Confederacy

Sidney Lanier served in the Confederate Army. A committee tasked with coming up with a new name for the high school named for him has proposed just ditching Sidney.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Sidney Lanier served in the Confederate Army. A committee tasked with coming up with a new name for the high school named for him has proposed just ditching Sidney.

The Austin Independent School District’s Board of Trustees will vote next Monday on what to re-name four schools currently named after members of the Confederacy. The board will decide between honoring the schools’ wishes,  which in some cases means no name change, or choosing entirely new names.

The board voted in February to change the names of five facilities in Austin named after men who served the Confederacy: Allan Center, Fulmore Middle School, Lanier and Reagan High Schools, and Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus.

After the vote in February, the district asked the public to submit potential names for these buildings. Then, AISD created a task force of community members to write the criteria that a potential name had to meet.

“A person who embodies a sense of integrity, who focuses on social justice and equity,” said Kazique Prince, a member of the task force. “Someone who may be from the area or may be in the education sphere.”

It was up to school communities to look through submissions, create their own list and send the district their top three choices.  In October, the board saw the top three choices for the schools. Prince, who was in support of ditching the old names and their symbolism, said he was disappointed by the lists. Committees from both John Reagan and Sidney Lanier High Schools’ said their first choice was to drop the first name and just keep the last.

Prince said that would go against the whole point of the renaming process.

“Somewhere there was a failure,” he said. “A failure to use the guidelines as criteria to pick a name, because there’s no way Reagan or Lanier would have come through.”

Medina Willis, a teacher at Lanier, was a member of the campus advisory council that oversaw the renaming process there. She said most of the members wanted to keep the name Lanier and drop Sidney.

Willis said she doesn't think changing the name would get rid of the racist past and solve the equity problem she sees in AISD schools.

“I feel really hurt by the fact that they’re saying a name change is equitable, when they’re not also pushing for name changes at schools who were named after people who were blatantly racist and who were pushing slavery,” she said, referring to James Bowie and Stephen F. Austin high schools.

Willis said she also wants to keep Lanier because it would be expensive to replace signs, uniforms, furniture and anything else with the school's name on it.

When San Antonio ISD renamed its Robert E. Lee High School, it spent $300,000 replacing these things. Houston ISD budgeted more than $1 million to change names at multiple schools in 2016. Willis said she’d rather see this money go toward improving school buildings and academics.

She said members of the school community have said they want to keep Lanier because they see the name as more than a historical reference.

“This school is a place,” Willis said. “It’s a place where students come to learn, it’s a place where they come and they know they’re secure. It’s a place they come and they know they are loved. So, keeping the name Lanier on the school lets them know that, yes, the last 50 years there have been some outside influences but we’ve held strong to our roots, which is take care of everyone who comes through this door.”

The board could select the schools’ second-choice names: Lanier’s was Diana Castañeda, who was the board's first Latina, according to her obituary; Reagan’s was Barack Obama High School. The Allan Center and Fulmore Middle School's first-choice suggestions met the criteria. Eastside Memorial's name change is on hold until it breaks ground on a new campus.

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