Arlington schools reached a pivot point May 31 on the angry issue of whether to rename Washington-Lee High School.
As the last agenda item in an otherwise-routine four-hour school board meeting, staff formally presented proposed general guidance on selecting school names. Tacked on was language that many protesting W-L alumni feel seals the fate of their 93-year-old school moniker:
“Robert E. Lee’s `principal legacy’ (i.e. the key activity, advocacy or accomplishment for which the individual is most known),” the proposal said, “was as general of the Confederate Army leading forces against the U.S. forces. This action does not reflect the APS mission, vision, and core values/beliefs.”
The context in which that conclusion was reached is central, given that critics of changing the name are blasting away at a process they consider undemocratic.
Spawned by the fatal racial clash in Charlottesville last August, Arlington schools’ nine-month process was described by Linda Erdos, assistant superintendent for school and community relations. With planned new schools requiring names, current policy offered “little guidance,” the staff had concluded.
But knowing the divisiveness of the W-L issue, APS consulted with the George Mason University School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. There followed focus groups at three high schools and with community members. Surveys drew responses from 1,100 students, 915 community members and 700 staffers. The resulting committee comprised 19 teachers, administrators—all APS alums. That committee took as a model a Yale University policy used recently to remove the name of slavery advocate John C. Calhoun from a college.
Erdos cited a petition to change the name containing 816 signatures (as of my writing) at Organizefor.org, versus fewer backing keeping the name on Change.org (now up to 695 signatures), and pointed to hundreds of school name changes over the years nationwide.
The general guidance, which discusses geographical criteria and how long a namesake must be deceased, does not rule out schools named for plantations (Wakefield, Woodlawn) because, Erdos said, “Places don’t do cruel or unjust things, people do.”
Change is difficult, she stressed, but the principle of “diversity in the people being served” by today’s schools should rule.
Not good governance, argued opponents among W-L alumni, most of whom want a popular referendum. Dean Fleming, ‘75, cited nearly 3,600 in informal polls against change. They spoke first at a pre-meeting press conference at which Senate candidate Corey Stewart, parachuted in from Prince William County, called the name-change “rampant political correctness” and a “waste of resources.” Lynne Lilly, ’60, said a new name would make it tougher for seniors to apply to college. And Tom Hafer, ’66, accused the board of “hypocrisy, deceit, ignorance and malfeasance” in a policy in which “it appears Yale students are more important than Arlington citizens.”
The new guidance came just weeks after Washington and Lee University, after soul-searching, demoted Lee from “general” to “president” of the college.
Board member Reid Goldstein confessed to some discomfort with the schedule of the board voting on the guidance on June 7, suggesting the need for “a bit more balance” in alerting the broader community to the debate. Others cautioned that might delay naming the new schools.
“We promised a deliberative process that’s fully transparent and reflects our values, judged objectively,” said Chair Barbara Kanninen, calling the staff proposal a future model. “We’ve fulfilled our promise. We’re in a good place.”
The tear-down bulldozers are headed for a familiar mansion at 3260 N. Ohio St., site of a famous annual flower display.
More alarming, say activists in the Arlington Tree Action Group, is that the builders taking over from the deceased owner are planning to remove deep-rooted trees to make room for two homes. One in the front yard slated for the buzz saw is an award-winning dawn redwood that is one of Arlington’s champion trees.
Builder Richmond Custom Homes did not respond to inquiries. The pro-tree activists are pressing the county to toughen its response from recommending to mandating its preservation.