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'It's the right thing to do': Florida school board votes to rename 6 Confederate-tied schools

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nearly a year since the shift was first proposed, a school board in Florida met at an auditoriumto decide if they would rename nine Jacksonville schools — six with Confederate ties and three with connections to the marginalization of Indigenous people.  

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Late Tuesday, Duval Country School Board members voted to rename six schools and keep three school names. The decision aligned entirely with Superintendent Diana Greene’s recommendations and community input. The names approved to change will go into effect on Aug. 3 according to a district spokesman.

“As a board and a community, we’ve done really hard things. But we can get this done,” School Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Andersen said, adding that it’s not forgetting history, but moving forward. “We know who we want to be as a school district.”

The socially distanced auditorium and an outdoor tented overflow space were packed with community members, many wearing white “Change the Name” T-shirts. About 60 speakers signed up for public comment with a mix of talking points on both sides of the sand. The school board meeting lasted four hours. 

More:6 things you need to know about the Duval County school renaming process

Notable speakers included a mix of students, school alumni, community members and politicians. Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser spoke on behalf of the school in her jurisdiction, Joseph Finegan Elementary. She said she supported the voting process and supports the community’s will to change the school’s name.

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“Keeping the names of Confederate generals in our children’s schools is a slap in the face to every African American that attends these schools,” Wells Todd of Take’Em Down Jax said. “Those that oppose the names being changed are acknowledging their support for the Confederacy and all that it stood for.”

Deyona Burton speaks at a rally

Deyona Burton, a freshly graduated senior class president from Lee High School, stood before the school board in her gown, cords and medallion. She pled that her class be the last graduating class from Lee. 

“My class has been through a lot… do not let all this pain be for nothing,” she said. “We preserve history by creating a diverse curriculum and teaching history honestly. It’s been a long day and an even longer process. Make the appropriate changes across the board so we can all go home.”

The school board’s vote marked the last piece of a multi-step process to consider renaming nine Jacksonville schools, which was launched last June after board member and former City Council President Warren Jones filed a bill.

Jones said he was moved by the death of George Floyd and Mayor Lenny Curry’s call to remove local Confederate monuments. He said he felt like it was time for the School Board to be proactive. He thanked locals for their involvement — even those he disagreed with. 

Since last year, the Jacksonville community has seen a series of community meetings, a number of rallies and protests and a formal balloting process. 

Those results culminated last week with Greene’s recommendations to change six schools named after Confederate soldiers and keep three school names that critics say are tied to colonizers

The school board voted to rename the following schools:

  • Joseph Finegan Elementary to Anchor Academy
  • Stonewall Jackson Elementary to Hidden Oaks Elementary School
  • Jefferson Davis Middle to Charger Academy
  • Kirby-Smith Middle to Springfield Middle School
  • J.E.B. Stuart Middle to Westside Middle School
  • Robert E. Lee High to Riverside High School

Supporters, like Ben Frazier — who founded the Northside Coalition — said the approved renamings mark a turning point in Jacksonville.

“The School Board’s decision to rename six schools in Jacksonville is a giant step forward in righting a racist ideology. We don’t need schools named in honor of slave-holding Generals,” he said. “That our children had to go to schools that were named to honor a disgraceful past was an injustice. The School Board’s vote tonight rejects those ideas and is a victory for Jacksonville.”

The board voted to keep the names Jean Ribault Middle and High School. But in a turn of events, some board members went against Greene’s recommendation to keep Andrew Jackson High School’s name. Darryl Willie, with support from Jones and Andersen, pitched an amendment to change the name of the school and go back to the community to find a name that reflects the school’s magnet program offerings. That amendment eventually failed. 

Superintendent’s recommendations: Superintendent recommends renaming 6 confederate-tied schools

‘The connection of oppression’:Jacksonville schools named after colonizers still debated

‘A name that represents me’: Young people lead the push for Lee High rename

The board’s vote didn’t come without quarrels. At one point, board member Charlotte Joyce motioned to amend school renaming recommendations with language that specified where funding would come from.

But school district personnel said it wouldn’t work legally. Jones said funding would be better scrutinized during budget discussions. The amendment eventually failed. Joyce made the same amendment motion for each school, which was supported by herself, Cindy Pearson and Lori Hershey. 

Motions to rename each of the six Confederate schools passed 5-2, with Hershey and Joyce voting against the renames. Joyce also raised concerns about the community voting process’s legitimacy, which was run by the Duval County Supervisor of Elections office. 

At one point, Jones became audibly frustrated. He said it was frustrating that no one was concerned about the “1925 cancel culture.” He asked where the board members and constituents’ concerns were when Black people couldn’t vote, run for office, sit in front of the bus.

“I’m voting to change the names because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. 

The decision marks the close of a heated debate throughout Jacksonville. Last week following the superintendent’s recommendations, name-change supporters like the NAACP Jacksonville Branch and 904WARD held a rally that was met with counter-protesters who waved Confederate flags and sang the Confederate song, “I Wish I Was in Dixie” in the Duval Schools headquarters parking lot. 

Local artist and activist Hope McMath speaks in favor of changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School during Tuesday's community meeting at the school. Members of Take 'Em Down Jax and the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville met across McDuff Avenue from Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida Tuesday, March 23, 2021 ahead of a meeting to allow alumni, students and community members to express their views on the proposed renaming of the school. In recent years a number of Jacksonville Schools named after figures from the Confederacy have come under fire and pressure is increasing to remove the names of those who fought to defend slavery doing the Civil War from institutions of learning in the city. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

“This has been a time of intense racial reckoning and this debate has been a piece of it,” said activist and artist Hope McMath. “It is important that those of us who have not carried the same pain as others stand in the fray. I ask that all nine names change of these schools. Because they will change — whether it’s tonight with your vote or two years, or five years from now.”

She added: “Wouldn’t it be nice if Jacksonville, because of your brilliant leadership, could be on the right side of history.”

Still, the renaming debate remained a spectacle until the very end, with Duval Schools designating three separate protest areas in the headquarters’ parking lot: one for pro-renamers, one for anti-renamers and one for anti-maskers who don’t want to disagree with the district’s optional mask policy for next school year. 

In a rare, emotional moment from Greene, she referenced the 2014 debate surrounding the renaming of Nathan Bedford Forrest to its current name, Westside High School. She said the graduation rates from before and after the school was renamed improved by nearly 30 percentage points from 62% to 90%. 

“Their high school diplomas mean something. Someone in this room made a decision that ensured they could walk across that stage. The things they do made a difference,” Greene said, adding that the same impact will continue regardless of the board’s decision Tuesday. 

She added that Lee High School’s graduation rate has also improved, from 52% before 2014 to 85.6%. 

“This is a very tough decision that this board was brave enough to initiate,” she said. “It’s a very tough process that the team who works for [Duval County Public Schools] was brave enough to encounter. The recommendation, one could say is brave, but it really isn’t. Any time I’m making a decision for children, it’s all about making a difference for them.” 

The school board meeting garnered national attention with a morning spotlight on NPR radio and the Southern Poverty Law Center releasing a statement ahead of the vote. 

“Today, the Duval County School Board can seize an opportunity to move Jacksonville forward by removing racist names from six of its public schools,” SPLC Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks said. “The Jacksonville community have rallied and most importantly, cast votes in favor of removing these racist names. No matter today’s decision, the Southern Poverty Law Center will continue to stand in solidarity with the coalition of stakeholders who support reimagining public spaces that best personify Jacksonville today.”

According to Greene, the estimated cost for renaming secondary schools would be around $287,000 per school and around $32,000 for elementary schools. The price for elementary school renaming is significantly less since those schools lack team sports and the kind of extracurricular activities middle and high schools have. 

Based on those estimations, the school board’s vote would cost roughly $1.2 million to implement. 

Not all of the name change expenses will come from Duval Schools’ own budget. 

The district said renaming costs would come from a mix of general funding, private donations, capital funding and internal accounts. So far, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund has raised over $70,000 toward school renaming. Donations shot up following the school board’s approvals with an anonymous donation of $50,000 and dozens of donations between Tuesday and Wednesday. School sales-tax funding is not intended for school renaming, a concern locals who wanted to see the names stay the same brought up repeatedly. 

Additionally, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund noted an additional $10,000 donation to Duval County Public Schools and local philanthropist Delores Barr Weaver issued a matching challenge. Weaver pledged to contribute $50,000 through a 2-1 match that will unlock if the community hits $100,000 in donations. 

“Tonight what we do, the goal is that it’s going to make a difference for whether it’s one of our students or thousands of our students,” Greene said. “We are going to get beyond this.”

Follow Emily Bloch on Twitter @emdrums.

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