North East ISD school board trustees in San Antonio recently voted to rename Robert E. Lee High School, citing changing times and concerns over safety for students attending a school named in 1958 for the Confederacy’s most prominent military leader. A risk of ongoing distractions stemming from national controversy related to Confederate symbols and fears of violence also played a part as the board voted 5-2 to give the school a new name.
Starting with the 2018 academic year, Lee High School will be called Legacy of Educational Excellence — LEE, for short.
The new name — and not the fact the decision itself was made to rename the school — deserves to be called out as a keen-eyed heckler might harangue a magician in a ridiculous shell game where all the hidden balls are the same — all marked with the letters LEE. With sleight of hand, a majority of the board has done nothing more than say, “now you see it, now you don’t” when it comes to eliminating the problem of perceived racism or removing anything associated with military heritage south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The acronym — LEE — is, at best, a feeble attempt to play both sides of the fence in the current national debate. At its worst, it is an attempt at pacification which, in a sense, is veiled racism.
“I just think we’re trying to put lipstick on a pig if you’re gonna still have the acronym LEE,” Edd White, one of two trustees who voted against the new name, declared in the San Antonio Express-News.
Mr. White is correct. The name change is no change at all. It’s akin to telling a child who dislikes spinach that the green, leafy vegetable on his plate really isn’t spinach, but a Supplemental Plant Ingredient for Nutritional Ingestion in Children’s Health, or SPINACH, for short.
The kid’s not stupid. He knows it’s still spinach.
The taxpayers of NEISD, as well as the faculty, staff, students and parents of Lee High School, aren’t stupid, either. They deserve better than a tepid response from district trustees to a gathering storm which has been brewing at the school for at least two years.
In 2015, after a white gunman killed nine worshippers at a predominately black church in Charleston, two different groups of students at Lee circulated petitions arguing for and against a name change for the school.
(It should be noted that only 4.3 percent of the roughly 2,600-member student body at Lee is African American. Hispanic students make up the majority of the school at 78.9 percent, followed by 13.6 percent white. All figures come from the NEISD’s website under the Texas Education Agency’s 2015-2016 school report card for Lee H.S.)
In a nod to the petitions, the board debated the name change issue at the time, eventually voting 5-2 against changing the name of the school. Trustees White and Jim Wheat were the dissenting votes then, and were the dissenting votes this past week against the new name.
Then, in August of this year, following violent white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, the board voted unanimously to restart the process of renaming the school. Rightly, the board solicited public suggestions for a new name and received more than 2,400 ideas, the Express-News reported; however, about 1,900 names were eliminated due to vulgarity or for not adhering to the board’s request that the name reflect an idea, rather than an individual.
NEISD, the 10th largest school district in Texas, already has six other high schools named for individuals, not ideas: Churchill, Johnson, MacArthur, Madison, Reagan and Roosevelt; therefore, it seems odd that it would break with tradition now.
However, breaking with tradition is becoming a trend at Lee H.S. where, in recent years, the district has removed symbols like the Confederate battle flag from sports and spirit group uniforms. The school band is now prohibited from playing “Dixie.” Lee’s mascot — the Volunteers — thus far remains unchanged.
“It is my hope that changing the name to Legacy of Educational Excellence will minimize the financial burden and help the community heal,” NEISD Board President Shannon Grona, told the paper.
If renaming Lee High School was inevitable, NEISD trustees had a golden opportunity to do so in a manner which would promote unity and, perhaps, a sense of healing. Certainly, there are countless San Antonio role models or even “ideas” that could have been selected.
Instead, they chose a name, seemingly, because it would save the district money in changing the school’s letterhead and signage while saying that LEE doesn’t really mean Lee — just like SPINACH doesn’t really mean spinach.
They’re both unpalatable.