Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The North East ISD school board voted 5-2 at its regular board meeting on Monday night to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School to Legacy of Educational Excellence (LEE) High School. The name change will go into effect with the 2018-2019 school year.
“Depending on the new name, the cost to the district could be extensive,” Board President Shannon Grona said. “The marquee, signs around campus, the end zone, all of the athletic uniforms – dance, cheer, and band uniforms, etc. As trustees, it is our responsibility to be fiscally responsible. We can minimize the number of things that need to be changed at the school.”
The LEE acronym would minimize the financial burden to the district, Grona said, and keeping the name would also “help the community heal.” The board does not have the authority to decide the mascot and colors, but Grona recommended keeping the Volunteer mascot as well as the red and gray school colors.
Anger in the community has been evident since the impending name change was announced, Grona said, calling the situation a “no-win.”
“It was clear that the community lashed out at us,” she added.
Following a student petition, the board voted unanimously to rename the school on Aug. 29. The students behind the petition, according to STEM Academy senior Kendall Kloza, are primarily from the Northeast School of the Arts (NESA), and not truly part of the Lee campus. Both the STEM Academy and NESA, along with the International School of the Americas, are magnet schools on the Lee campus.
“If [the NESA students] had a problem, they shouldn’t have come [to this school],” Kloza told reporters after the board voted to change the name.
On Sept. 18, NEISD opened up a public submission process for names to replace Lee. Of the more than 2,400 submissions, 542 met the district’s criteria, which included that the new name be “an idea” rather than a person, district spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor stated in an email on Oct. 2. More than 200 people proposed “no change.”
The district did not post the complete list due to profanity and offensive language, including racial slurs aimed at black students. At the board meeting, however, some of the offensive names were displayed, but not read aloud, to demonstrate the “hatefulness” that had been displayed throughout the submission process.
“I was appalled by some of the suggestions,” Grona said. Such hatefulness demonstrated that “times are different, tensions are high, and that [changing the name of the school] was the right decision,” she said.
On the contrary, Kloza said. The 1,900 “bogus” name submissions showed that the community did not agree with the name change, which amounted to a “hysterical reaction to the news cycle” after white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed at a rally over the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12. One woman was killed when a car drove into a crowd of counterprotesters.
The name change prioritized students’ safety and the school’s focus on education as Confederate monument protests broke out in San Antonio and around the country in August, board members said.
That concern was misplaced, STEM Academy senior Douglas Karam said, addressing the board. “Removing the name does not remove hate and racism,” Karam said. As a person of Lebanese and Hispanic descent, “I know what racism looks like,” and he had not seen it at Lee. “This name change has been a colossal distraction,” he said.
Three STEM academy students spoke against the name change before the board and were joined by several others on the steps of the NEISD administrative building after the vote was cast. Kloza and her soccer teammates cried as they accused the board of taking away their community pride.
“We’re already outsiders in this district,” STEM Academy senior Selah Evans said. Their soccer team has a losing record, she said, and lacks the equipment and facilities to compete with other NEISD high schools. However, Evans said, “we have school pride.” The name change would take that away and ostracize the school even more because it would now be “the only high school not named after a person.”
Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, was not the only problematic namesake in NEISD, Kloza and Evans said. Theodore Roosevelt openly “cheated on his wife,” she said, and “nobody liked” General Douglas MacArthur, and felt he “couldn’t be trusted.” Every public person in history has some character flaw, Kloza said. (It should be noted that Franklin D. Roosevelt is known for having had an affair, not Theodore Roosevelt.)
The students did not accept that some people see Robert E. Lee’s Confederate legacy as a continuing issue.
“There is no racism at Lee,” Evans said.
While the soccer players each live in other enrollment zones, they chose to go to Lee through the open enrollment STEM Academy.
“I went to Robert E. Lee to make a change,” Kloza said. “This is not the change I wanted to see.”
While comforting crying students outside the board meeting, Lee alumnus Tim Adams, who bills himself as “the world’s only conservative community organizer” on Facebook, pledged to unseat the board members who are up for election.
Board members Jim Wheat and Edd White cast the dissenting votes.
While the acronym is intended to minimize cost, it was “virtually impossible” to estimate the cost of the change before knowing what the new name would be, NEISD Superintendent Brian Gottardy said.
Wheat asked if the LEE acronym was put in place as a way of justifying the decision and to “appease people along the way.”
Over the years, the school’s Confederate identity has been whittled away to make the Robert E. Lee name more “palatable,” White said. The Confederate flag was removed and the school song was changed from “Dixie.” The LEE acronym would be one more such accommodation, White said, but predicted that the board would have to reckon with it again in the future. “You’re trying to put lipstick on a pig,” White said.