Trustees of the North East Independent School District voted unanimously in a special meeting Tuesday to rename Robert E. Lee High School.

It’s up now to district administrators who, beginning next month, will develop a plan for renaming the school that has carried the name of the Confederate general since opening its doors in 1958. The school will continue to be known as Robert E. Lee High School for the 2017-18 school year.

Focusing on the safety of current and future students, school board members said the name has proven a divisive distraction in the growing national debate around monuments and memorials dedicated to the memory of Confederate leaders in the Civil War.

The board’s special meeting was prompted by an online petition calling for the school’s name to be changed. The decision, announced in a packed board room, followed heated on- and off-discussions among community members, students, and alumni. The board did not take public comments during the session.

In 2015, NEISD debated changing the name of the school but eventually voted 5-2 to keep the name.

Trustee Sandi Wolff said that at that time there was no process for changing school names across North East ISD, so the board did not support a name change. Wolff, who represents the district that includes Lee but is resigning from the board because she’s moving, made a motion for the name change in her final meeting.

Board member Sandi Wolff commends the students of Robert E. Lee High School for speaking up.
Board member Sandi Wolff commends the students of Robert E. Lee High School for speaking up. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This time around, Wolff and her fellow trustees said they were troubled by the violence surrounding recent debates over the removal of Confederate monuments nationwide. That included a violent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white nationalists opposed to the removal of a statue of Lee and counterdemonstrators, leading to the death of one woman and injuries to other peaceful protesters.

Board President Shannon Grona said the name Robert E. Lee may cause division, but that changing the name would be costly and would not reduce the tension that exists in the community or the nation. However, Grona said that as a trustee she had a duty to uphold the district’s principles, emphasizing student education and safety. She expressed disappointment in the extreme voices heard in the heated debate.

“Our students deserve so much better than that,” she said.

The San Antonio City Council has scheduled a vote Thursday on removing a Confederate statue from Travis Park.

In the end for NEISD, Wolff said a priority must be placed on the welfare and education of current and future students at Lee and district-wide. Wolff applauded the Student Committee for Change, a group led by current Lee students pushing for a name change.

The student group offered its own proposal aimed at securing at least 60% support from among current students, 30% support from alumni who graduated in the last five years, and helping the NEISD to offset costs of a changing the school’s name. The group also pledged to help come up with possible new names.

“It is the students who matter to me first, and when they reached out to me, I was impressed,” Wolff said.

“Our board ultimately is providing the safest educational environment, one that is filled with opportunities to learn and explore, which includes civil discourse,” Wolff said.

Board Vice President Brigitte Perkins said she does not necessarily agree with all of the reasons for removing the Lee name, but acknowledged the emotional debate distracts from the school district’s overarching goal of educating children.

Robert E. Lee High School.
Robert E. Lee High School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Quite frankly, this is a no-win situation,” Perkins said.

Perkins also said she felt “bullied” into considering a difficult decision based more on public pressure and emotion.

“It is of great concern that a person’s history can be distorted and be used for a person’s hatred and bigotry in today’s world,” board Secretary Sandy Hughey said, referring to Lee.

Hughey said she could not support a name change partially because it would be costly to the NEISD, requiring changes in signage, sports uniforms, and other items. But Hughey said she feared for the safety of the students petitioning for the name change.

The board recently voted not to give employees a raise, with some trustees blaming the state Legislature for not properly addressing public education financing in its special session.

“It is unfair to expect a district that’s already financial strapped to enter into more debt when it can’t even give its own teachers a raise,” Hughey said.

Board member Tony Jaso said the national debate around Confederate monuments and memorials has made it difficult to have a civil discussion about such issues.

“Nationally this debate has created an overly charged environment and a lack of respect for differing opinions,” he said. “It represents a potential danger to our children at this school, aside from being a colossal distraction from our primary mission – to educate and develop the whole child.”

Board member Jim Wheat said the district must first consider the well-being of its students, faculty and staff. He added that any changes would be only in name and logo for the high school.

The NEISD board convenes to discuss the possibility of changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School.
The NEISD board convenes to discuss the possibility of changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Disruptions in safety and concerns were not at the forefront of what we talked about two years ago, but now they certainly are,” he also said.

Trustee Edd White addressed alumni, some of whom were dressed in attire bearing the school’s name, telling them they could still be proud of their school and all they did there.

“There’s passion on both sides of this issue, and I am not sure there’s a win-win solution,” he said, adding it is time for a new school name “that will stand the test of time.”

Wolff said it will take time for administrators to form a plan for changing the name and that nobody really knows exactly how much it will cost the district.

Fernando Rocha, a 1982 Lee graduate, was unhappy with the decision.

“I personally understand the decision given the environment,” he said. “It’s unfortunate and I don’t think it’s warranted, but every single person in there kept repeating it’s about the safety of the kids.”

Solstiz Ibarra Campos, a Lee senior, supported the name change.

“I feel great,” he said. “Like one of the board members said, change won’t happen overnight and we are going to have ‘Lee’ on our diplomas,” he said. “But the change is progress.”

Campos said his group would work to help the district to raise funds and get input on a new name. The student group members wore a button with a hashtag #ChangeLee. Shortly after the board decision, the group’s Facebook page changed the hashtag to #ChangedLee.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.