National events are forcing local Oklahoma City Public Schools leaders to respond to heightened concerns about four schools the district says are named after Civil War Confederate generals.
The four schools are Jackson Enterprise Elementary, Stand Watie Elementary, Lee Elementary and Wheeler Elementary, all on the south side of Oklahoma City.
At the last Board of Education meeting Monday night, a majority of members expressed concerns about OKCPS students feeling accepted.
They also showed deep concern for the open expressions of racist ideology they had been seeing in the national news media.
Board member Charles Henry was the first to bring up a concern about some schools in the district being named after Confederate generals.
According to original engravings over one door, Jackson is named after Gen. Stonewall Jackson, and a dedication plaque inside Stand Watie confirms the district opened it as being named after Cherokee Gen. Stand Watie.
There has been some question raised on social media about whether Lee Elementary is named after Gen. Robert E. Lee, and whether Wheeler Elementary is named after General Joseph Wheeler.
The district websites for each school indicate they are. And district officials have been acting on the basis that all four are named after well-known confederate generals of the Civil War.
Lee school has been added onto and modified so many times over the years no cornerstone has been found outside.
School personnel say they have not been able to locate a plaque inside, either.
Superintendent Aurora Lora held a news conference Wednesday at district offices in Northeast Academy to respond to concerns both on the board and around the district.
“As a first step, OKCPS is committed to working closely with community historians to ensure we have a full understanding of the current heritage of our schools,” said Lora in a prepared statement at a news conference Wednesday.
“I am not interested in forcing a new name on any community that does not feel it is necessary,” she said. “Rather, I hope to take this opportunity to share information on the current namesakes and then help find funding for those schools where the community feels a name change is needed.”
“We don’t tolerate hate or discrimination in any form. And we are committed to providing an educational environment where all students can feel safe and welcomed at their school,” Lora said.
Lora took questions briefly from the gathered press.
There were several significant clarifications she made in response to questions.
What she means by “community” are the neighborhood families, children, teachers and staff of each school.
She said she wants to engage with each school’s community initially to find what their concerns are and then begin to move forward on a name change if that’s what they desire.
If a school’s community does want a name change, then the process would be like the process that was followed over the course of a year with Capitol Hill High School when they changed their mascot from “Redskins” to “Redwolves,” Lora said.
If there is a name change of a school, it would not be an attempt to “erase history,” a concern among conservatives across the U.S. as statues of Confederate generals have been removed in some cities.
“We still want history to be taught at our schools,” Lora said. “But we want to think about the people our buildings are named after and whether they represent the values that we have as a district at this time.”
Since budget cuts from the Legislature have been in the forefront of discussions in the past year and this new one, questions about the cost of name changes came up.
Lora said that they are working on more detailed estimates, but staff rough estimates put the cost of a name change for a school at being around $50,000.
How would a cash-strapped district pay for that?
“We would be looking for community partners or seek donations to fund the name change,” she said.
Lora said the next step would be for her to ask permission from the board to engage in discussions with each of the four school’s communities.
Her request will be an information item at the Sept. 5 board meeting and then would be acted upon three weeks later.
UPDATE, 8:37 p.m., 8-20-17: Wording has been changed to reflect that there are questions about whether Lee and Wheeler Elementary schools were actually named after confederate generals. The original version of this story showed a question about Lee, but not Wheeler.