Within months of President Obama taking office in 2009, the Prince George’s County Board of Education voted to allow the district’s newest elementary school to carry his name. But the rare decision to honor a sitting president immediately raised concerns.
Former school board member Judy Mickens-Murray, who supported Obama during the election, said she thought the board was acting in haste. Others said there were local residents deserving of the recognition.
“I was hoping the school system would allow the president to make accomplishments first,” Mickens-Murray said.
Prince George’s has more than 55 schools named in honor of individuals, including three other presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Andrew Jackson and James Madison), literary figures (Robert Frost and Francis Scott Key) and Tuskegee Airmen (Charles H. Flowers and Henry A. Wise Jr).
Naming school facilities has a tendency to stir emotions and can divide communities, and the Board of Education made seven such dedications last year. Faced with a flood of requests this year to name auditoriums, media centers, music wings and even the main entrances of schools after county residents, former educators and assorted dignitaries, the Board of Education has decided to revise its naming policy to be absolutely clear about who can receive similar honors.
The proposed policy would institute new rules for honoring a person — living or deceased — with a monument on school grounds. Such naming would have to be endorsed by the school’s advisory council or PTA and would have to go through the school system’s chief executive officer to the Board of Education, which would have to give final approval.
The board is scheduled to take up the policy at a meeting Thursday.
Driving the debate, in part, is an effort by state Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s) to obtain state funds to place a statue of Len Bias, a University of Maryland basketball star, at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. Bias, a Northwestern alumnus, died in 1986 of cocaine intoxication less than two days after he was drafted second overall by the NBA’s Boston Celtics.
“Len Bias was a student athlete in Prince George’s,” Ramirez said. “He moved the University of Maryland basketball program to new heights. He and Michael Jordan were the two best college players at that time, until he tragically died. . . . We can learn something from everything. The nation learned a lot from this unfortunate incident.”
Members of the county school board learned a lot about the procedures for naming schools, buildings and monuments as a result of the Bias request, which remains controversial. Mostly what they discovered was that there were no criteria for doing it, said Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5), the former board chairman who initiated work on the new policy.
Jacobs said she and the board have struggled with how to “determine or distinguish whether a particular person would have an educational benefit.”
Ramirez withdrew his legislation earlier this year after some concerns were raised in the community about the appropriateness of honoring Bias. Board members privately worried about the precedent that might be set were they to erect a statue in honor of Bias, whose death sparked a national discussion about drug use.
Ramirez said last week that he hasn’t given up on the idea. Instead of lobbying for public money, he said he is thinking about soliciting private funds to pay for the statue. Should the new policy meet approval, he would still have to go to the board to place the statue on school grounds.
Prince George’s is taking up its naming policy discussion as residents across the nation wage contentious debates over the naming and renaming of schools.
After months of grappling with the issue, the Duval County school board in Florida voted Nov. 8 to begin the process of renaming a Jacksonville high school that honors Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan.
The decision came after a parent started a petition on Change.org asking the board to remove Forrest’s name from the school. It has carried his name since 1959, at the height of the integration of public schools in the South. The petition garnered more than 161,000 signatures from across the country.
In Arlington County, a parent asked the School Board during a meeting about three months ago to consider changing the name of Washington-Lee High School, which memorializes the legendary — and local — generals George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
“Why do we continue to honor Robert E. Lee with the rarified tribute of a high school name in our progressive county?” said John Schachter, referring to the man who led Confederate forces during the Civil War. “It’s likely inertia, at best. Or racism, at worst. Or some misguided so-called Southern pride to some extent. . . . Lee deserves no honor for fighting on the wrong side for the wrong cause.”
Frank Bellavia, a spokesman for Arlington schools, said the board has not considered Schachter’s request.
The new naming policy in Prince George’s would require the selection of a nine-member committee of residents, students and parents to recommend three names for any new school. The board would then make a final decision. Under the current policy, a board subcommittee recommends names to the full school board.
The policy also would give the board the power to rescind a name “at any time based on an action by a private individual or organization that is deemed by the Board of Education to be inappropriate and/or in conflict with the values of the Board of Education” and Prince George’s County schools.
Jay P. Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas who conducted a study for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in 2007, said school names should aim to reflect a community’s values. The study found that school districts are opting to use more scenic and geographic titles, which are inherently less controversial.
In the Washington region, for example, there is Eagle View Elementary School in Fairfax, named in 2006 by a fourth-grader who participated in a community meeting. And in Prince William County, there is Freedom High School, which was named following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In naming the Upper Marlboro elementary school after Obama, Prince George’s bucked the national trend.
According to the study, Greene said, school boards are increasingly shying away from naming schools after presidents, generals and civic leaders. They are even skittish about honoring local educators.
“The problem for school boards is that this often injects a fight: Why your person and not my person? Or they are nervous that something unflattering may come to light about that person,” Greene said.
“They have increasingly decided to avoid the hassle and just have pleasant-sounding names that are more like herbal teas and day spas than traditional-sounding names. That’s how you get Whispering Hills and Oaks Bluff.”