Tyler’s public school board weighs the costs of renaming Robert E. Lee High School. But do the numbers add up?

From the estimated price tag presented by district staffers, to the validity of online polls, to the role of majority opinion in civic debate, important questions surround the TISD school board's approach to deciding this issue.

Top row: a Confederate flag and memorial to Confederate soldiers at the city-run Oakwood Cemetery. Bottom: N. Confederate Avenue in a northside Tyler black neighborhood, and a sign at an entrance to Robert E. Lee High School

The Tyler public school board is scheduled to discuss renaming Robert E. Lee High School next month. But after a Monday meeting in which district staffers presented a price tag for renaming costs that surprised board members—and is notably higher than recent renaming costs in other Texas school districts, according to a review by The Tyler Loop—the likelihood that the board will vote on the issue is in question.

“I’m a little less encouraged,” said board member Aaron Martinez, who has been in favor of renaming the school since community members called for a change last August. Those calls, which originated on social media, followed a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that inspired many cities and towns across the country—including Dallas, San Antonio, and Amarillo—to rename schools named for Confederate heroes.

Ten days after the Charlottesville rally in August, nearly 300 people crowded into a Tyler school board meeting to speak for and against renaming Lee. Board members said they couldn’t recall any other issue drawing such a crowd. Forty people made public comments, evenly split between supporters and opponents of a new name for the school. Not long after, board members decided to table the issue until spring or summer.

Last week, Martinez, the board’s sole Latino member, and fellow board member Orenthia Mason, one of the board’s two black members, asked for the issue of renaming Robert E. Lee to be placed on the board’s agenda. That request prompted board president Fritz Hager to schedule a special meeting on the issue for the evening of June 7.

Mason has in the past voiced support for a name change at Lee. She told The Tyler Loop late on Wednesday afternoon that she is not yet ready to say publicly how—or if—she thinks the board should proceed. Martinez said Wednesday that he’s also mulling next steps. “If we don’t have the votes, I’m not sure how we move forward,” he said. “But we do need to be held accountable. At some point, there should be a board vote so people can see clearly how they’re being represented.”

During or after Monday’s meeting, three of the board’s seven members—Wade Washmon, Andy Bergfeld and Patricia Nation, who are all white—stated clear opposition to a change that they say would upset many Lee alumni and Tyler residents. “It’s the community’s money, and it should be spent with them in mind—not as the personal mission of a couple board members,” said Washmon. “Is it worth the fundamental shift in focus of our district from being one-hundred percent student-outcome-related to now delving into kind of the whimsical and hyperbole-based realm of social politics that feed on fear, as opposed to facts, and get us really emotional?”

In earlier board discussions, Bergfeld had said he was open to considering renaming his alma mater. But on Tuesday, he issued a statement declaring that the issue was too divisive and needed to shelved. “I love this town and will always look out for what I believe is its overall best interest,” he wrote. “Because of this, I cannot support this issue continuing to be on our agenda.”

A fourth member, Jean Washington, who is black, questioned during the meeting why the board was discussing the issue at all. When reached Wednesday, Washington refused to say how she might vote and expressed dismay that news media had learned about the issue being placed on any upcoming board agenda. She said her constituents have not contacted her about this issue.

During Monday’s meeting, other school board members noted that the majority of comments they had read on Facebook and other social media were opposed to a change, and that an online reader poll offered on the Tyler paper’s website last fall attracted about 300 anti-change votes. (There are well-documented problems with using online polls to measure public opinion.)

Black and Latino students now make up nearly two-thirds of Robert E. Lee’s student body and nearly 80 percent of the district as a whole. Several current Robert E. Lee students told The Tyler Loop that there have been in-depth discussion about the name change among local high school students on social media, both for and against. But those conversations didn’t happen on Facebook, the social media site favored by many adult Tylerites. The students’ discussions played out largely on Instagram, the platform more popular among young users and black and Latino users, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Social media is dangerous. You only see opinions of folks who agree with you,” said Erricka Bailey, 28, a community activist who works on issues of infant and maternal health in black Tyler communities. “It’s concerning to look at Facebook as your way of deciding who is for and against things.” Meanwhile, Bailey points out, a majority of voters did not favor the decision to desegregate American public schools sixty years ago. “Are we going to go back and undo that decision because it’s not what the majority wanted? As elected leaders, going by majority vote is not effective. You also have to look from an ethical perspective.”

Taniyah Jones, a junior at Robert E. Lee High School, said she is deeply disappointed by the latest turn of events and hopes the board will move forward with a vote, even if it doesn’t result in the change she is hoping for. “It seems to me like at this point, it’s their job to do it,” she said. And while Lee alums opposed to change have been very vocal on social media, Jones says she isn’t aware of any efforts by school board members to hear the thoughts of current students.

As a young black woman, Jones said, she finds it deeply painful to attend a school that honors the leader of the Confederate Army, a figure whose legendary “heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed,” according to this deeply researched history of his life and his treatment of slaves at his Arlington plantation over at The Atlantic. When the issue started gaining steam at the start of Jones’s junior year, Jones was hopeful that by the time her graduation rolled around, her diploma would not bear the name “Robert E. Lee.” Later, when she read that the school board had tabled the issue until summer—members said continuing to discuss it during the academic year would be too “distracting” for students—Jones grew skeptical.

“Any time there’s a hot-button topic, people will want to find some way to delay until the buzz dies down and they can ignore it,” she said. “They made it seem like they were trying to protect the students, but really, it feels like we were being used. You know when a parent doesn’t want to do something, so they keep telling their kid ‘maybe, maybe,’ hoping they’ll just forget? That’s what this feels like to me.”

Meanwhile, parents like Erricka Bailey, who have small children in the Tyler public school system, wonder if their voices will matter as much as those of alums who attended these schools years and decades ago. To Bailey, a vote to keep the current name—or a failure to vote at all—would “send a message to our family that we are not welcome here, and that the school board does not support black children.” She and her partner have already discussed the possibility of sending their son to a different school if they’re still living in Tyler and the name of Robert E. Lee High School hasn’t changed by the time their boy starts high school.

The price tag of change: Tyler’s cost estimate is much higher than those in other Texas cities

If a vote does take place and change is approved, and new names are selected for both Robert E. Lee High School and John Tyler High School by October, staffers say it could cost the district about $1.19 million to make the changes. While Robert E. Lee High School has been the main focus on public debate on this issue, John Tyler High School’s name has also raised discussion. (John Tyler was, among many other things, a secessionist and a member of the Confederate Congress.) Both schools are currently undergoing major renovations funded by a $198 million school bond.

If changes were approved at any point after October, they would cost an additional $419,000 to $465,000 per campus. Board members who support change said they were surprised and even dismayed by the cost estimates. “These numbers were significantly higher than I expected,” board president Fritz Hager told other members.

Elsewhere in Texas, however, recent school-renaming decisions have carried notably lower price tags.

In San Antonio, the decision last fall to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School to Legacy of Education Excellence, or L.E.E. High, was expected to cost the district $299,000. That included changing athletic and band uniforms and equipment, as well as replacing signage and branding items in school buildings and on athletic fields.

In Austin, a decision earlier this year to remove the names of Confederate generals and leaders from five schools, including several early-graduation high school campuses, was estimated to cost $322,000. Renaming four elementary schools in Dallas was expected to cost about $150,000 total.

And in Houston, where trustees voted to rename three high schools and four middle schools in 2016 after a white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., the total tab for all seven campuses came to $1.24 million.

Asked about the discrepancy between the costs incurred in other school districts and the estimates provided by TISD staffers, Hager said he has requested more detailed cost estimates “to determine if there is a more cost-effective way to phase in a potential change, should the board opt to make a change.”

If renaming is approved by the board, the funds will come from a pool used for special projects ranging from renovating Rose stadium to upgrading science labs, Hager said late Wednesday afternoon. “So cost is an important consideration. While there have been several misleading reports about the magnitude of the cost, the costs presented by the district would significantly impact my support for any future name-change after this renovation window closes.”

Not “the Tyler way”?

At Monday’s meeting, board members noted that they’ve grappled with tough issues before: closing schools, changing school attendance zones, raising taxes, and successfully ending the nearly 50-year local embarrassment of having a federal court monitor Tyler public schools for possible violations of desegregation rules.

But Andy Bergfeld, a white Lee alum who spoke in favor of change last fall, said he worries that the board might be going too far, too fast for East Texas’s largest school district when it comes to Robert E. Lee. “It seems like we’re maybe not doing it the Tyler way… The overwhelming majority is not in support of this change. If we’re gonna change it, we need to be able to explain to them why, and be able to live with it… I just want to make sure that, if the district’s gonna sacrifice the goodwill we have and we’ve developed over a good many years, we need to do it the right. We need to take this on the right way.”

It’s unclear what Bergfeld considers the “right way.” He did not return calls for comment on this story.

Tyler has wrestled for decades with questions of race and civil rights, and the city’s political power brokers have had a long history of trying to quell public debate and quietly dictate delays that often ossify into permanent inaction. Such tactics are largely responsible for the school district’s failure to take action when black community residents and leaders pleaded for renaming in the 1970s. (For more on this history, see our 130-year timeline on the history of school segregation in East Texas, and our report on black Tyler’s long-ago attempts to create this change.)

School board members have uniformly declined to say whether they’ve been approached by political leaders over the renaming issue this time around. But several longtime local observers say they’ve seen obvious signs of private lobbying efforts intent on convincing board members that the renaming proposal is too divisive to revisit in public.

Attorney Nick Pesina said arguing for delay won’t help the city in the long run, and it won’t foster sustainable support for its public schools.“There’s never a wrong time to do the right thing,” he told The Tyler Loop. There’s a fear in our community of not having unanimity. But something this morally significant is never going to be unanimous.” During an August school board meeting, Pesina was one of the 40 people who spoke passionately—but civilly—on this issue. He has since regularly attended board meetings to speak in favor of renaming.

“This fear of controversy shows a lack of trust in the community to have difficult conversations. But we already showed that we can have this conversation in a civil way. Now, there needs to be a vote, and it needs to be in the public record,” Pesina said. “If it’s going to get voted down, let it get voted down and show that our community identity is not there yet. That would be really unfortunate, but we would then have the opportunity to build from there.”

Leaning on history

It remains to be seen how—or even if—the board’s discussions will continue. Though the issue isn’t on the agenda for the regular monthly meeting next Monday, members said they expect to hear again from citizens on both sides.

During Monday’s session, board member Orenthia Mason asked her colleagues to consider doing an online survey of community residents. “I just feel it is most important to hear from the citizens. I really do. I didn’t attend Lee. I’ve read the history of General Robert E. Lee…and I understand the sentiment and the feelings and the anxiety and the anger. But I think it’s important to hear from the alumni of Robert E. Lee.”

Hager said an online survey would be possible but might not offer useful data “because of the ability to influence it from outside sources.” Hager also noted that the board lacks legal authority to put the issue to a community vote.

Mason has since posted a Facebook query seeking feedback on the issue from Lee alumni. Several Lee graduates posted emotional responses. One, a black Lee alum who attended shortly after the desegregation order, described her years there as painful and racially charged. “It was not easy nor enjoyable being black and going to high school at Robert E. Lee,” she wrote. Changing the name “would not change the mindset of white Tyler, nor their hearts,” she said. “So, why?”

Mason, who is a minister, led the board through another difficult decision related to race and education in Tyler public schools in recent years. In 2016, she was president when the board decided to try and end nearly 50 years of federal court supervision over Tyler public schools for possible violations of federal desegregation laws. Given the history of race and education in Tyler—and the reasons a federal court had stepped in to monitor TISD in the first place—that decision wasn’t an easy sell, either to the court or to black Tyler.

In 1957, the city’s then all-white school board signaled its determination to fight desegregation by voting to name the district’s brand new, all-white high school in honor of Robert E. Lee. Throughout the ‘60s, the city’s white power structure fought integration of Tyler schools, and even after a federal judge ordered desegregation in 1970, they dismissed pleas from the black community to change Lee’s name. It was only after being threatened with federal court action that the school board reluctantly changed Lee’s Rebel mascot and retired its Confederate symbols—including the world’s second-largest Confederate flag, carried at every football game.

That flag, donated to the school by current school board member Andy Bergfeld’s grandmother in the early ’60s, is still revered. Lee alums who graduated in the 1960s and early 1970s regularly feature it at their class reunions.

It was against this backdrop of history—and current realities—that Mason had to answer to her constituents. “I served as president of the board then, and that was difficult,” she told her colleagues during Monday’s discussion. “I got phone calls you didn’t get. I’m sure you know that. But we had to look at what is best for our school district and what we could do as board members to enhance our school district.”

By the time the desegregation monitoring order was lifted from TISD in 2016, Tyler was one of the last districts in the state to come out from under federal supervision. Today, even as other school districts around the state opt to retire the names of Confederate generals from their campuses, black students at Robert E. Lee continue to cringe over traditions like the school’s anthem. Sung at pep rallies and other school events, it begins: “Robert E. Lee, we raise our voice in praise of your name, may honor and glory e’er guide you to fame.”

If history is any guide, it’s very unlikely that the Tyler public school board—whether current members or future ones—won’t have to deal with this issue again down the road. The next public meeting of the Tyler school board is Monday evening, and although the issue is not on the agenda, board members say they expect to hear from more members of the public on the renaming debate.

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Lee Hancock is a veteran investigative journalist who's covered corruption, crises, conflicts and natural disasters at home and overseas over two decades with Dallas Morning News. She is the author of upcoming book of the 1993 Branch Davidian siege and its impact on popular culture, with an M.F.A. in creative writing from Bennington College.
Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
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