Discussing the cons of naming Wake County schools after people and towns

Posted by T. Keung Hui on November 14, 2013 

Should the Wake County school system avoid naming new schools after municipalities or individuals?

That’s the view that several Wake County school board members have on the at-times contentious issue of school naming. As noted in today’s article, board members gave that guidance to staff at Wednesday’s facilities committee meeting.

As a result, you could see that Southwest Cary, or anything that mentions Cary, not getting the nod for the name of the new H-7 high school that will be built in the community.

You can also expect future discussions of school names to take place first at facilities committee meetings instead of at board work sessions. You’ll also see staff making one recommendation instead of only giving a list of three or four choices with no recommendation.

Here’s how the discussion went at the facilities committee meeting.

Betty Parker, director of real estate services, walked the board through the process that’s now used to develop school names.

Parker said that they request a name when they need a budget code from the state for that school.

Parker said they investigate a number of potential names using criteria from board policy 2570, which says schools shall be “named in accordance with geographic location or similar site specific identifiers, such as roads, streets, natural or historical features, or after individuals in accordance with the guidelines of Policy 2571.”

Parker said environmental studies and U.S. Geological Survey maps help to provide names.

Parker said they also look at historic resources.

Parker said that using roads can be challenging when they have church in the name, such as the new M-8 middle school on Leesville Church Road in northwest Raleigh. She said that having church in the name might be confusing to people.

Parker said they bring three or four names. She said they used to recommend one of the choices until they were told to stop doing so by the board within the past four years.

By not making a recommendation, Parker said the process changed from doing it in one board meeting to do it in two now to give the board more time to consider the options.

Parker pointed to how the board hadn’t always taken staff’s recommendation. In 2009, the board went with the name of Walnut Creek Elementary School when staff had recommended Sunnybrook Road Elementary School.

Parker also said there’s now increased municipal involvement in the naming process.

Parker then used the H-7 example in Cary where staff gave four choices.

• Green Level was suggested, Parker said, because of geographic location and historical features. She said that the Green Level community is well known in the area and that the site is adjacent to Green Level Church Road.

• White Oak was suggested, Parker said, because the site is in White Oak township and water from the site flows into White Oak Creek, the nearest notable natural feature.

• Roberts Road was suggested, Parker said, because it’s the primary road the school will be accessed on. She said that if a school can be accessed by multiple roads they pick the one which will be the primary access.

• Southwest Cary was suggested, Parker said, because it identifies the area in the town where it will be located.

Parker said they generally start with roads, streets and natural features. If they don’t have three choices they expand the search.

Parker said they will often share the names with municipal staff to see if they have any concerns. She said they usually don’t get a response.

Parker said they really stick close with municipal staff when the school at a is joint park/school site.

As an example, Parker cited how the E-20 school was located at what was going to be called Durant Road Park. Since there’s already a Durant Road Elementary School, they went with Abbotts Creek Elementary. Raleigh has since renamed the park after Abbotts Creek.

Parker said they ran the H-7 choices past Cary municipal staff because the school is adjacent to a future town park. She said they wanted to see if any of the names would be difficult for the town to align with.

Board member Kevin Hill, chair of the facilities committee, steered the discussion back to the policy as opposed to the discussion of the H-7 choices.

Board member Susan Evans said the current method is a good and appropriate way by staff to come up with preliminary names. But she said the names should be first brought to the facilities committee rather than the full board.

Evans added that she was happy to hear that the board had not always gone with staff’s recommendations in the past. She said she had been reluctant to offer additional names because she felt she would be shot down.

Board member Bill Fletcher said he was surprised to hear that the policy was changed in 2010 to resume allowing schools to be named after individuals. He said he’d prefer that it would revert back to the prior policy, when he was first on the board from 1993 to 2005, when names of individuals were banned.

“I don’t think we benefit the community or the system by engaging in whose name, or what name, to honor or to recognize,” Fletcher said. “I would prefer not to see that in the policy.”

Fletcher said he would prefer that staff make a recommendation. He said that going to the facilities committee first might be an improvement.

Fletcher added that as a board they may need to sharpen the direction on the hierarchy that staff uses for developing and recommending names.

“I would love for this to be much more of a staff activity than at a board level,” Fletcher said. “I would rather be focused on other things than taking the time to be involved in naming of a school.”

Board member Jim Martin said he concurred with Fletche about spending less board time on school naming. But Martin added that he doesn’t have a strong feeling on naming schools after people.

Martin said he was surprised that municipal names fall into the category that can be considered.

“It would be one thing if we were a municipal district, but we can’t afford to have student assignment based on municipal districts,” Martin said.

Martin brought up how they often hear during transfer appeals from parents complaining about not going to school in the town they live in or going to a school named after a town they don’t live in.

“I think it would be wise for us to avoid that direct kind of a municipal tie,” Martin said. “I know that’ s not popular in some quarters. But we’re an ever expanding county. It’s hard to tell where one municipality starts and one ends.”

Martin added that once you start putting directional names in such as Southwest Cary, you raise issues about whether people are coming from the wrong side of the tracks.

Martin said he’s not sure that they need to put a ban on mentioning municipalities into board policy but they can still avoid using them in the future.

Board member Tom Benton said he backed dropping from policy the use of individuals for school names.

Benton said that while he wants the staff to make a recommendation, he still wants to hear the other choices that were considered.

Benton also backed trying to avoid using municipalities in the names of schools because of the student assignment issue.

“The simple matter already is we don’t recognize municipal lines in student assignment,” Benton said.

Evans also focused on the issue of not using municipalities in school names. Evans said she doesn’t want municipal names to be among the default choices for a number of reasons.

Evans said it’s better for each school, particularly high schools, to have their own identity. She said that’s harder when they’re named after a town.

Evans had initially backed changing West Apex High to Friendship High before signing on with the use of Apex Friendship High as the name.

“If you end up with Apex High, East Apex, or West Apex or South Apex, it just gets too cloudy and difficult for people to keep up with,” Evans said. “I think it’s better to stick with some of these historic and geographic features so that a school can have its own unique identity.”

Evans said that geographic names can get you into trouble because of growth. She said that while West Cary Middle might have made sense when it opened in 1965, the school is so far from the town’s western border that it’s no longer funny.

Board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner said that Green Level is a nice name for H-7 but might be redundant because it could be confused with Green Hope High. But Fletcher said he wouldn’t take Green Level off the table yet.

Fletcher quipped they don’t want to go as far as some districts in naming schools after numbers.

“For God’s sake, let’s don’t go to P.S. 142,” Fletcher said.

Hill said the sentiment is to have staff come up with one recommended choice and to present it to the facilities committee first instead of the full board. But Hill said he’s not sure if the policy needs to be changed.

Evans said she’s not sure if they want to change the policy because there may be that “rare instance,” when they want to name a school after a person. She cited how they’re hoping to name the new CTE high school after the late Vernon Malone.

But Fletcher questioned what happens if 40 people show up at a board meeting asking for a school to be named after a person.

“What happens if someone demands we name it Ronald Reagan High? “ Fletcher said. “I don’ t know if we want to get into that.”

Martin said he thinks that Reagan can’t be used because the guidelines in Policy 2571 talk about the person whose name is being requested having served in the school system. But the policy says it’s not necessarily limited to school employees

Benton said they need to have a policy that would avoid naming political figures who are not connected to the school system. As examples, Benton cited Reagan and Barack Obama.

Hill said that the board’s executive committee, consisting of the chair and vice chair, will have to decide whether the policy committee should look into changing the naming policy.

The meeting ended with the next facilities committee meeting being scheduled for Dec. 11 to hear the staff recommendation for the name of H-7.

In an interview after the meeting, Evans said there’s no groundswell from the community, similar to what happened at Apex Friendship High, for a different name to be used for H-7. But Evans, whose district houses H-7, reiterated that she has concerns about the four choices.

Evans said she likes Green Level but she’s concerned it might be confusing in light of how there’s already a Green Hope High that’s not too far away from the site.

Evans said she’s concerned that when people hear White Oak they think of the Garner area.

Roberts Road was boring for Evans while she’s not in favor of using the town’s name for Southwest Cary.

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