Last week’s decision by the Fairfax County School Board to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School by a vote of 7-2 with two abstentions represented the county’s subscription to a growing national attitude that Confederate emblems are not fit to adorn public spaces. The process in which that vote was achieved, however, was marred by inconsistency and opaqueness, and leaves an already fractured community at risk of a prolonged road to recovery.
“Whenever students are uncomfortable with some aspect of their educational environment, the School Board needs to take their concerns seriously,” at-large Board member Ryan McElveen told the News-Press in an e-mail interview. “However, this was the first time a school name change has ever been considered by [this] Board, and it was a learning experience.”
The next steps in the process are an open public meeting at Stuart on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 10 a.m. to gather new names for consideration. A vote will be held the following Saturday, Sept. 16 from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. where community members can choose from the top three choices. Cost-wise, the renaming will run from $600,000 – $900,000, or more specifically, in the ad hoc committee’s report $678,000 is projected to be covered by the county with an additional $255,916 projected to be covered by the private citizens, totaling $933,916.
Last Thursday’s meeting began with citizen speakers from both camps reiterating their contrasting views on the name change. Each side stuck to their party lines: For those supporting the name change, colloquially known as “Changers,” the argument was to address the immorality of naming a school after someone who fought against the U.S. and for the enslavement of African-Americans. For those in support of keeping the name, or “Keepers,” the goal was to not conflate past values with current ones while also highlighting that the Board’s direction had been questionable over the past two years.
It was the Keepers’ latter point that resonated with some members of the Board. What ensued was a 90-minute debate over a substitute motion proposing to suspend the name change vote until October in order to hammer out the ambiguity in Regulation 8170 — a revision drafted in Dec. 2015 and put into effect in Feb. 2016 in light of the Stuart issue which laid the framework for how the Board would handle other name changes moving forward — and its wording of what qualified as “compelling need,” “sufficient support” and “community.” With the language clarified, whatever conclusion the Board reached would be transparent to all members of the community and remove any shadow of a doubt that due process was followed.
Instead, the motion narrowly failed to pass by a 6-5 margin and ensured Mason district representative Sandy Evans’ original motion, which had a late addendum about keeping the name “Stuart” as a compromise in order to sway undecided Board members in its favor, would be enacted. Reception to the passage was, expectedly, mixed.
“A ‘compelling need’ is what the School Board says is ‘compelling need,’” proponent of the name change Stephen Spitz said. “‘Sufficient support’ – I don’t think it’s inappropriate to say it doesn’t have to be a certain percentage…I don’t think they violated their regulation.”
“They’re not exhibiting good governance and they’re not following their own regulations [or] the rule of law,” Denise Patton-Pace, who supports keeping the name, said. “[They] weren’t elected to sit in this seat by ‘sufficient support,’ and don’t have the right to make up the rules of democracy.”
Differing opinions on the Board’s procedure weren’t confined to members of the ad hoc committee. Board members found themselves in the dark on the committee’s proceeding and weren’t aware of that ad hoc members had divided into various subcommittees soon after its formation until this spring — months after the committee was created.
According to Braddock district representative Megan McLaughlin and Springfield district representative Elizabeth Schultz, then-interim Superintendent Steven Lockhard conferred with former board chair, Evans, and vice chair, Dranesville district representative Jane Strauss, on what to do regarding the balkanization of the ad hoc members. The three agreed to let the committee simmer in its current state as opposed to bringing it to the rest of the Board’s attention and revising guidelines for the what they were expecting to see from ad hoc members.
Evans rejects the assertion that other board members weren’t informed about the committee’s proceedings. She states that each member received progress reports on the committee through the Lockhard’s regular “Superintendent Updates.” Evans also denies that she and Strauss influenced how Lockhard, who oversaw the ad hoc committee, handled his responsibilities. Still, a disconnect was evident, and while advisement from board may not have corrected the course of the committee, it would’ve been seen as an effort to remain steadfast to a process they constructed.
The lack of involvement, or interest thereof, in the committee’s procedure is what left Regulations 8170’s criteria up to discretion throughout the past year. Rather than have the Board and superintendent delve into the committee and work with both sides on a path toward a compromise, as McLaughlin said was done in Georgetown University’s recent renaming issue, the laissez-faire approach let the two groups develop separate rationales and schlep the onus for more discretion from Board members to determine whose argument was most valid.
Add in the Freedom of Information Act documents that reveal proponents of the name change helped draft the Feb. 2016 revision, per Schultz, and even with that control, a name change couldn’t be logically justified. It sets a precedent that haphazard governing will prevail if the Board deems it necessary and is what ultimately led to the vote that had Luther Jackson Middle School’s auditorium in a hodge-podge of applause and appall.
“If people can’t understand how you arrive at a decision because the criteria of ‘sufficient support’ [and] ‘compelling need’ are not more clearly defined,” McLaughlin said. “Then it has the appearance that the outcome was manufactured and not that it was arrived at by a process that has integrity and was followed with fidelity.”
That brings about the age-old question of whether policies are to be followed strictly or if they are open for interpretation. For the Keepers, it’s the former and for the Changers, the latter, adding more discretion into a contentious debate that was riddled with subjectivity from the start. Though not all Board members felt there was any straying from the what the regulation demanded.
“We did follow the letter of the law. Some folks were questioning that, [but] we did follow our rules,” Evans said, adding that her motion that passed was cleared by the division counsel. “Now am I going to tell you this process was perfect? No…we certainly could’ve done it better. That doesn’t mean we’re just going to stop cold and say we’re not going to do what the right thing to do is because we had some missteps along the way.”
As one board member put it to summarize the intent of the Board, “The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.” And for some, last Thursday’s decision was a good and well-deserved accomplishment for two years of labor. But without attempting to be perfect in their procedure, the Board settled for a merely good result while the community remains divided.