In the context of two weeks of unrelenting mass protests in cities big and small all across the U.S. in the wake of the video-taped murder by a white uniformed police officer of the unarmed African-American George Floyd, including three relatively large demonstrations in the City of Falls Church, the Falls Church City’s Public School Board is faced with calls to change the names of one or both of its five schools that are currently named for men who were slaveholders at the time of the nation’s founding.
Petitions are currently swirling around the Little City, with claims of over 350 signatures presented at Tuesday night’s School Board meeting, and scores of public comments have been submitted to the board, all of which were read into the record at Tuesday’s meeting, reflecting the sustained national ferment calling for major reforms in policing and an end to systemic white supremacy.
The comments, triggered in part by a letter to the editor in last week’s News-Press and an outgrowth of the demonstrations here, took all sides of the issue of renaming George Mason High School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary.
The schools have gone by those names, both honoring Virginia-born Founding Fathers — Mason the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and Jefferson the author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in the 1770s — since the founding of the independent Falls Church Public School System in the late 1940s.
While many of the comments have advocated for changes, some for changing the names of both schools and others for changing only Mason, others critiqued the “well-meaning but misguided” endeavor, some citing the cost to the now financially besieged system (as impacted by the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic).
The only possible alternative that came out in the public comments was Tinner, in recognition of the African-American family that was deeply involved with their Henderson family neighbors in the struggle for civil rights in the early 20th century.
Led by School Board chair Greg Anderson, the board in its online meeting Tuesday began at 10:20 p.m. to set its collective arms around the issue without coming to any decisions except that the matter would be brought up again at its scheduled work session next Tuesday.
As Trish Minson, the board’s legal counsel, reported Tuesday, there are provisions in the School Board policy documents for selecting or changing the name of schools, in Regulation 4.26 for example, that were used when the board selected the name for its Jesse Thackrey Preschool and its Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in the last decade.
The process spelled out in that regulation calls for the board — if it chooses to move forward — to select a public committee that would be subject to all the constraints of a public body to make all its meetings public and to issue legal notices of its actions. That committee, or committees if it is determined to study the matter for two schools, would come up with a recommended five alternative names for the School Board to consider.
The board would not be required to limit its choices to those five recommendations, and only the School Board could make a final decision.
Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan told the board that the process “could happen quickly, starting next week and possibly wrapped up by early September.”
That would be in time to present the completed new high school now under construction and slated to be completed by December, with its name, new or otherwise.
But fast tracking the idea didn’t sit well with some board members.
Board member Shawna Russell called the time table “extremely aggressive” and “not what we want” taking into account the need for community input. Board member Phil Reitinger also offered a strong resistance to the fast track, noting that, first of all, a committee would “be better at recommending what the name options may be than at whether changes should be made at all.”
He said he is troubled by the idea that an appointed committee could have such a strong influence in the matter, and said that a September decision date would have to take into account the need for public surveys on the subject that would have to have merit.
He said that two factors would have to be considered, first, a review of the contributions of or demerits attributed to Mason and Jefferson, and, second, an appreciation for how the Falls Church community feels about the matter, including students of the schools involved, themselves.
“We cannot relegate these questions to a committee,” he said.
School Board members Laura Downs and Susan Dimock both said that the financial implications of the matter have to be considered. “We have to go into this with our eyes wide open,” Downs said.
Board member Shannon Litton stressed that “student voices need to be heard” on the subject, and for that reason an outcome could not be ready by September. Board member Lawrence Webb concurred.
Anderson said a decision on whether or not to move ahead may be sought at next week’s work session, which will also be burdened with by lengthy discussion of the details of options for a measured reopening of the schools for some summer activities and classes in the fall in line with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s guidelines laid out Tuesday.