The Board has been mulling the possibility of stripping Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s name from the school ever since last summer’s violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville sparked a national conversation about Confederate symbols, but members asked school system staff to develop a more detailed policy framework to guide the naming of all buildings first.
Arlington Public Schools officials delivered that proposed change to the Board last night, and members are now set to take action on it by this coming Thursday (June 7).
“We said we’d seek to adopt naming criteria that reflect our values and allow us to judge every potential school name with objectivity,” said School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen. “We have kept these promises… and we’re in a good place. I really like what you’ve brought us. I think it’s going to be a model as other school communities grapple with this issue.”
The new policy, drafted over the course of the last nine months or so, is principally designed to guide Board members as they select new names for the bevy of new school facilities set to open in the coming the years.
It would recommend putting an emphasis on selecting geographical names with “historic or geographic significance to the Arlington community’s history. But if the Board is to name a school after an individual, that person’s “‘principal legacy’ (i.e. the key activity, advocacy or accomplishment for which the individual is most known)” needs to align with “the APS mission, vision, and core values and beliefs,” according to the proposal.
Yet, under those criteria, APS staff also suggested that the Board would need to rename Washington-Lee, given Lee’s legacy fighting for the Confederacy, which championed slavery.
“A lot of people don’t like change and we know that it’s difficult in all aspects,” said Linda Erdos, APS assistant superintendent for school and community relations and the facilitator of discussions around the naming policy. “But everybody kept saying, ‘Diversity should be on the minds of people, the diversity of the people served.'”
Such a change would certainly not be without controversy — some Washington-Lee alumni have been vocally protesting any change to the school’s name, over concerns that such move would tarnish a fixture of Arlington County. Washington-Lee has used that moniker since it opened in 1925, and some alums urged the Board to put the matter to a public referendum.
“The Arlington voters should make the decision, not five persons,” said Betsy Lockman, a W-L alum.
Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, echoed that call in a press conference ahead of the meeting. Stewart made his opposition to the removal of statues of Confederate generals in Charlottesville a hallmark of his failed bid for governor last year, and he dubbed any consideration of renaming Washington-Lee as an example of “political correctness gone rampant.”
“I guarantee you, the citizens of Arlington County and the alumni think, ‘Leave it alone,'” Stewart said. “The average citizen, including here in Arlington and throughout the country, realizes it’s absolutely ridiculous and a tremendous waste of Arlington County’s resources and the school system’s resources.”
Vice Chair Reid Goldstein wasn’t willing to call for something as unorthodox as a referendum on the issue, but he did, at least, want to see the Board slow down a bit.
“I don’t think one week is enough time to consider this,” Goldstein said. “I would like to hear from the community in a way that is a little bit more balanced than the way that we’ve heard in the past, because, to me, this is a significant issue.”
Yet Board member Tannia Talento pointed out that the proposed policy has already been in the works for months, and would lay out a lengthy process that would focus on Washington-Lee’s name specifically. If adopted, the proposal calls for the Board to convene a committee on the issue, which would issue a recommendation on the school’s name by November. The Board would then vote on the issue in December, with any new name to fully take effect by September 2019.
Accordingly, Kanninen recommended that the Board push ahead and take up the new policy sooner, rather than later.
“We have a clear and rational policy proposal that we’re looking at, and it will chart our path as we proceed to the next steps,” Kanninen said.
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