CARY — After a lengthy and emotional discussion, the Wake County school board voted 5-3 Tuesday to rename a new high school in Apex after an area with long ties to the African-American community.
The board opted to abandon the use of the previously selected name, West Apex High, in favor of Apex Friendship High in recognition of the Friendship community around the new school.
The naming controversy pitted Friendship residents, who said approval would show respect for the historic community, against other Apex families who argued that using “Friendship” in the name would be inappropriate for a high school.
“It’s our job to represent the entire community,” school board Chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat, said before the vote. “Not just Friendship, not just West Apex. It bothers me that we’re put in a position where we have to choose a side. I think the best road to take is one of compromise.”
But opponents of the change, including families who expect to attend the school scheduled to open in 2015, said it wasn’t a compromise at all. They argued that “friendship” is more appropriate for the name of a preschool or a religious school than a public high school.
“The word ‘Friendship’ is of course not a negative word, but it feels very inappropriate for a high school,” said Apex resident Rebecca Risner.
The prior school board had voted in November 2011 to use the West Apex name.
But earlier this year, more than 350 people signed a petition asking the school board to include the name of Friendship, a rural, unincorporated community off Old U.S. 1. Friendship formed in the mid-1800s as a peaceful place for whites, blacks and Native Americans to co-exist, according to local history books.
But since last week, an online petition with more than 700 signatures was collected from people who urged the board to keep the West Apex name.
The Apex Town Council changed its opinion several times. The council originally backed using West Apex but then passed a resolution in support of using Apex Friendship. However, in an email Tuesday, Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly told the school board that the majority of the council wants to keep the West Apex name.
Sutton said the school board only reconsidered the name after the Apex town council backed using “Apex Friendship.”
On Tuesday, the groups sat in separate sections, with a largely white contingent urging the board to keep the West Apex name and a largely minority contingent from Friendship backing the new name.
Jenny Ross, an Apex parent, read comments from high school students who signed the petition saying that using ‘friendship’ in the name would be “too juvenile” and that other schools wouldn’t respect them.
“High school is full of young students moving on to college, not preschoolers,” Ross said as she read one student’s comment. “Imagine being at a football game and they announce, ‘Here comes Apex Friendship.’ ”
Other speakers suggested alternatives such as using the Friendship name for a new elementary school or middle school to be built near the high school. Other suggestions included naming a wing or dining hall at the high school after Friendship or noting on the school’s sign that it’s located in the Friendship community.
Friendship resident Louis Powell said the community is dying off and deserves to be recognized in the school’s name.
“It is imperative, crucial that you name this school ‘Friendship,’ ” he said. “This proves it. Not to just the minority community but to the entire community.”
Paul Barth, who lives near Friendship, said supporters of the name change can’t understand why there’s opposition to naming the school after the community it’s in.
“The people really feel that they’re being looked down upon,” he said.
The arguments resonated with board member Susan Evans, a Democrat who represents Apex. With Wake County becoming more “homogeneous,” as it grows, she said they need to “pay homage” to its history of being made up of communities like Friendship
“I think it’s extremely important that we honor the older historic areas of our community,” she said.
Board member Jim Martin, a Democrat, said he was “personally offended” by the emails he received from critics of the Friendship name who made arguments such as that it would lead to bullying.
“Just bringing up these arguments trying to make a case for something that is not real and rational is not the basis for why I would make a decision,” he said.
The vote was split along party lines with the board’s three Republican board members, Bill Fletcher, Deborah Prickett and John Tedesco voting against the name change.
With Friendship dying out as a community, Tedesco said, using its name to designate the school wouldn’t serve the area well. He backed using it in the name for one of the other schools.
“It better serves the broader community to call it West Apex,” he said.