After six months of a lengthy and often contentious debate involving the entire City of Falls Church community, the Falls Church School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to change the names of two of its five schools, ones named for U.S. founding fathers who famously owned slaves, George Mason and Thomas Jefferson.
George Mason High School, more than 60 years in existence and on the verge of moving into a new $120 million campus, will have its name changed to a new name yet to be determined. The same goes for the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
Board members spoke to the strongly-felt sentiments of students, teachers and citizens alike, even though an informal survey conducted by a consulting firm in October showed over two to one preferred keeping the current names.
Most said they found the decision difficult and changed their minds over the recent months. Board chair Greg Anderson said, “It is possible to have two opposing things be true at the same time,” citing the seminal contributions of both to the founding of the republic contributing to the ability to have the kind of heated discussions associated with this issue, and the fact that they owned over 900 slaves. “I find changing the names both in the best interest of the community and necessary.”
The board took two votes, one for each school and both were unanimous. The renaming process will follow the guidelines outlined in the Falls Church City Public Schools’ regulations.
Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan will accept individuals’ nominations to sit on an Advisory Study Committee to the School Board for each school name. The committees will recommend five names to the School Board. The Board will announce the timeline for the work at an upcoming meeting.
In his statement that closed the board’s debate on the matter Tuesday, Chair Anderson said, “My duty as a School Board member is to make decisions for our schools, on behalf of the community, that are in the best interests of our students. To me, that means gathering public input, weighing it with other information, and ultimately making a choice that I believe will best serve our students.”
He noted there have been 12 public meetings, two public hearings and 3,400 responses to the survey, which he acknowledged was controversial because it showed a wide majority of respondents in favor of keeping the current names. However, Anderson pointed out that the survey was not a referendum involving the entire community, but a sampling of the perceptions of the participants, and he stressed that the opinions and views of all “have been heard and listened to” by the board.
Board member Susan Dimock said that key to her is “what’s my role” in the process of advancing the system’s policy to ensure that “all are welcomed, celebrated and cared for.”
Board member Shawna Russell said that she issued a call to civility in a diverse community knowing “there are good people who are not racists on both sides,” and that Mason and Jefferson “provided us with free speech and a free press” but “made reprehensible choices.”
It is her job as a board member, she said, to act on behalf of the students, for whom none can feel less worthy.
Laura Downs said she’d changed her mind several times, noting that “actions reflect values,” and that decision to change the names is “one step in the right direction.”
Phil Reitinger said that each side is “right in part.” He said the survey “accurately reflected the view that the achievements of the founders outweigh that they owned slaves. But “in this time, in this place” it is best to vote to change the names.
Reitinger said he was informed by the U.S. presidential election, where 81 percent of voters in Falls Church “rejected the keeping of children in cages, the smearing of good people and the stoking of division at every turn. I feel the need to change course, and do more.”
Shannon Litton said that changing the names “is extremely relevant in the present.” Lawrence Webb spoke extensively on the subject at the previous board meeting and affirmed his vote for the name changes.
Lawrence Webb, the board’s only Black member, said, “I will concede that Thomas Jefferson and George Mason contributed to the founding of our country and that will cement them as important figures in our history…but enslaved another group of people to better themselves. To hear that it was acceptable at the time does bother me…I hope this [vote] sparks a conversation of how Blacks have contributed significantly to the founding and building of this country.”
Of the nine from the general public who testified at Tuesday’s meeting, former history teacher in Falls Church and the parent of three graduates of the F.C. School System, Joseph Bracken was among those who urged keeping the current names.
On the other hand, a spokesman for the Mason High Student Council Association executive board urged the name changes “to demonstrate we have learned from history, to put the voices of the marginalized as the forefront.
Dr. Jennifer Santiago, the director of Equity and Excellence for the Falls Church City Public Schools, testified that “there is no majority rule as a factor in matters such as this,” noting the experiences of the white and affluent cannot compare to those who live with the experience of racism.
The changes will be symbolic, she said, “but real, sending a message that change is at hand.”
Chair Anderson summed up the discussion saying, “Two opposing things are true about both George Mason and Thomas Jefferson. It is true that both men made fundamental contributions to the formation of the United States. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are foundational to the U.S. and our republic.
“It is true that both men owned enslaved people, as many as 900 individuals over their lifetimes. It is true that was common among the Founding Fathers. That doesn’t make it any less reprehensible.
“It is not revisionist history to say that both men achieved great things, and both men committed reprehensible acts. That’s true history, and nothing we do tonight will change it.
“It doesn’t change history to ask: Are these two men appropriate namesakes today for schools in a division committed to anti-racism? After careful consideration, I come to the conclusion that they are not.”
John Wesley Brett, the director of communications for the school system, issued a statement to the News-Press, “When this renaming process began during the pandemic, public meetings had already moved online. The board sought to provide as many outlets as possible for students, parents, staff and community members to express their views under less than ideal conditions. These included a combination of written comments, virtual public hearings and the survey.
“If someone didn’t want to, or couldn’t find the time, to write a letter, or Zoom virtually into a public hearing, the survey was a quick way to register thoughts. The board used a third-party company (K-12 Insight) to do their survey to retain impartiality, but it was not a scientific survey similar to a political poll with a margin of error. This was just an extra avenue to voice an opinion.
“On the flip side, if the board were to solely rely on survey results, then they would be ignoring the hundreds of written comments and the hours of public hearings also held. It was the combination of input they said moved them to the decision Tuesday night.”