The ongoing debate about whether or not to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School is moving forward, albeit slower than expected. Fairfax County Public Schools’ interim division superintendent Steve Lockard sent out a letter on Wednesday, Dec. 7 saying that the school division is accepting nominations for the working group that will research and discuss the renaming issue from all sides.
The working group is then expected to report their findings to the Fairfax County School Board and give a recommendation to the board on what to do going forward. It will likely be made up of students and parents of students at the school, members of civic associations and residents of the community surrounding the school, which is named after a Confederate general.
Originally, the working group was scheduled to have already been formed and to report their findings and give a recommendation in March, but that’s been delayed due to the resignation of former superintendent Karen Garza in September. Now, Fairfax County School Board chair Sandy Evans, who is the representative of Mason District where Stuart is located, expects that any report to the board in March will only be an update and that the conclusion of the working group will be scheduled at a later date in 2017.
The working group itself is a delay in the process of the board coming to a decision on whether or not to change the school’s name. There was a motion to vote on whether or not to change the school’s name this past summer, but a counter motion was made to create the working group in order to get more community input on the issue.
It was then that Evans came out in support of changing the school’s name, but some of her fellow board members, like Springfield District representative Elizabeth Schultz and at-large member Jeanette Hough, have expressed either outright opposition to changing the name or skepticism of the process and the idea since it was first brought to the board. Although part of the opposition doesn’t even want the board to vote on this issue, Evans said that she feels that despite the delays the board owes it to the community to weigh in with a vote.
“We’re at a stage now where because we’ve changed superintendents, the interim superintendent decided we really need to start fresh on creating the working group,” Evans said. “So he just put something out to the community and we did try to get it out to the fuller community – parents, students and civic association – to let them know that the organization is being formed and if they wanted to volunteer they could do so.
“So he’s in the process of…that and taking a look at who should be represented on that group….We’re a little behind where we thought we’d be at this point, but that was kind of inevitable because of our superintendent leaving and [the superintendent search] has to be at the top of our list.”
Evans said that the people who are selected for the working group will likely be informed early in 2017. She said that there will likely be someone from the school system who serves as a facilitator for the group. This decision came after a slight controversy over misinformation saying that the school system planned to pay an outside contractor up to $100,000 to facilitate the working group. Evans and Garza both said that the school system was not going to spend over $20,000, but those opposing the name change seized on this misinformation to shout down the idea of hiring an outside facilitator.
Another reason why the facilitator for the working group will come from inside the system instead of outside of it is because the school system now has to pay an outside facilitator to guide the process of finding and selecting a new superintendent.
“I believe at one point that Dr. Garza was looking at hiring a facilitator. Unfortunately, that was misrepresented in some places,” Evans said. “It was never going to be the upper figure that people were talking about.”
As the minor quarrel over the facilitator showed, both sides of the debate have persisted in their effort to either keep or change the name.
Schultz told WUSA9 in October that the community doesn’t want the name change and that money shouldn’t be spent on it because funding for schools is tight. “We’re already in a strained position,” Schultz told WUSA9. “This is where we have, I think, an extra fiduciary responsibility as school board members to be cautious with the money that we spend.”
The five students who originally started the Students for Change organization and began fighting for a name change – Lidia Amanuel, Abby Conde, Marley Finley, Anna Rowan and Cassie Marcotty – have graduated and are in college. But they’ve passed on the fight to younger students who are carrying out the work that the original five began in June 2015.
“I don’t think that a school is a place to honor someone who was a traitor and who fought for the Confederacy,” said Lily Beres, a junior at Stuart. “I think there is a place for statues and whatever else, but I don’t think that a school that was named during Massive Resistance is the place to honor a Confederate general.”
The Massive Resistance that Beres referred to was a time after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal educational facilities were inherently unequal and ordered schools to desegregate. In response, school systems throughout the country tried tactics of all kinds, some in the state of Virginia even completely shutting down, to prevent the integration of black and white students. It has been claimed by those in support of the name change that Stuart got its name as a measure to intimidate and discourage black students from going to the school.
Beres and her fellow Students for Change Pasha McGuigen and Ariana Habibi, who are also juniors, don’t just work on this issue. They are part of a social justice club at Stuart called the Impact Club that meets to discuss issues of all kinds. Evans said that, as a representative of the students on the school board, she appreciates the students’ work.
“I would anticipate that until this is resolved that we’ll have student who feel strongly on both sides….I do think that the original Students for Change, they are away at college now, but my guess is they are still watching this and they are still interested in what happens,” she said. “I know there parents and I occasionally hear from them as well, wanting to hear from the new students continue on.”
Despite clearly supporting the name change, both on the board and in her capacity as a representative for the Mason District, Evans said that she has listened to and understands the opposition to the name change.
“I understand the opposition to it. I read various comments and a lot of it, not all, but a lot of it has to do with why would we spend this kind of money on a name change,” Evans said. “And I understand that view. I really do. If we’re going to do this, we need to find a way to make sure the cost is reasonable, so I do think that’s a legitimate concern.
“The other piece of it, as far as whether J.E.B. Stuart was a good person or not a good person, I think that’s not the critical issue here. I think what we need to be thinking about is this the name that truly reflects what we want to reflect in our schools these days. All of these issues will be fully explored by the committee…[and] hopefully we’ll have energetic and enthusiastic people who can sort through this.”