TYLER — Tyler ISD will change the names.
The district’s board of trustees voted 7-0 on Thursday night to move forward with changing the names of Robert E. Lee and John Tyler high schools.
For more than an hour as community members filed in one-by-one to make their cases, the chants of protests from outside the meeting could be heard as residents eagerly awaited a board decision during the special meeting, which began at 6 p.m. and lasted about three-and-a-half hours.
Trustee Artis Newsome made the motion for the vote, which was seconded by Aaron Martinez and approved by the board.
On Monday, trustees will finalize board policy revisions that will define how buildings can be named and the process for soliciting public input.
Board member Andy Bergfeld said it’s time to stop “playing games” and dividing the community when it comes to new names for the schools.
“I don’t want to see any revenge naming, that’s the best way I can describe it. We need to be done with playing games with the names of our schools,” Bergfeld said, urging caution over how the process should play out.
Board President Wade Washmon said when the issue came back up, he knew he would have to lead in a way he had not been forced to do before, and he knew he would need to garner community support.
The board heard from dozens of residents on both sides of the issue before discussing the matter in open session. More than 40 community members signed up to speak.
Before the vote, board members made comments that leaned toward the change.
The Rev. Fritz Hager Jr. said, “I believe now is the time for a better path,” while Aaron D. Martinez said this board has to finish the vote on the school name, something that did not happen during the past four years.
“The decision needs to be board driven, and there needs to be a policy change. Be leaders and be policy changers. Unfortunately, last time the board did not lead,” Martinez said. “Lack of action then has risen up some student leaders outside, students who have learned a lot about community. We should keep in mind that we’re talking about changing names, not being creative about fixing inequalities. The road that we have ahead of us is long. Changing the name was right 50 years ago, it was right two years ago, and it’s right today.”
Washmon admitted, “I know it’s difficult to make. So much of my Christian brothers and sisters are so focused on race that they’ve forgotten grace.”
Quoting the Bible and Ephesians 4:29, board member Patricia Nation said, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.” She continued, “Our board president has asked all to remain reasonable in this time. I would like that my voice and history be heard. I love history and teaching. My husband and I engaged in history reenactment. Over those years, we’ve taken part as both soldiers and civilian.
“I honor the soldiers. As an educator, I encourage you to not take everything you see on social media as fact. Don’t jump to conclusions,” Nation continued. “There’s no such thing as the right side of history. We all have the same history. We need to learn and grow from it. As a board member, I hear you. Changing the name of the school alone will not change the hearts of the people. Our job is to focus on successful student outcomes for all students, and that is where our focus needs to return.”
Bergfeld then posed the question, “In a situation of compulsory education, where students have to attend the school in which they are zoned to, is it right to force African Americans to attend a high school whose namesake is inevitably, directly or indirectly, to defending the institute of slavery? If we say we’re all created equal, when I put myself in their shoes, it doesn’t feel right.”
Also quoting Scripture, board member Yvonne Atkins said, “The Bible says, ‘There’s a time and season for everything.’ And this is that time and season.”
Board member Artis Newsome, added, “It’s the best thing for the school. If the students’ education is hindered by the name of school, we should be concerned. In the early days, a neutral name should be changed. We should not let political climate determine the district’s decision.”
The Rev. Orenthia Mason, who retired from the board earlier this year spoke to the board, representing a group of black elected officials in Tyler. She said the group has met recently and will support the board, not just in its decision, but in the process to come.
“It’s time to make a change, it’s time to tear down any bridges that might separate us,” Mason said. “I know that is not an easy decision, but I hope and pray you (make the change).”
Ronald Purdue said the “liberal news media” would not report on what he had to say. He said that despite others saying the name Robert E. Lee was not good enough for Tyler, it was Lee who donated the land that Arlington National Cemetery sits on today.
Bobby Curtis said outside interests had come to Tyler to “stir up a hornet’s nest.” He said that if the name change passes, he and others will not continue to financially support the district.
Robert Wilson said there is racism in Tyler ISD, but it is from teachers who glorify figures such as Malcolm X. Wilson also said the district should ban the “Marxist and anarchist” slogan Black Lives Matter as it promotes black supremacy, and also called on the district to end scholarships dedicated to minority groups.
Caroline Crawford, who graduated in 2019 from Lee, said she does not hate her high school experiences, and they remain important formative moments in her life, but she is ashamed to tell others where she went to school.
“One thing I experience in college that Lee did not prepare me for was being unable to take pride in my school,” she said.
Mission Bonner said she was coming before the board to demand change for her daughters who attend Tyler ISD.
“I am no longer accepting what I cannot change, I am changing what I cannot accept,” Bonner said. “It is pain, it is trauma, it is a constant reminder of white supremacy. We are asking, no we are demanding, you change the name.”
Class of 1966 graduate Deborah Routen said changing the names of the high school is part of a larger movement to take away from America.
“What comes to mind is people who come here who immigrate. When they come here they’re educated in our history, and the way our laws are built between local, county state levels. They’re taught about the Declaration of Independence, our flag’s history. All history basically, and the Constitution. They’re also taught how to assimilate into America without changing. They’re welcome to bring their heritage. We will respect theirs if they respect us,” Routen said. “Right now, there is a cancel culture movement that has infringed on all of our history. It’s a page out of Saul Alinsky’s socialism book on how to dominate a country, that’s destroy their history. Take it out. And the fundamental transformation of America was begun by Obama, basically. That’s what he ran on he ran on his first campaign.”
Superintendent Marty Crawford and Director of Facilities Tim Loper also discussed potential costs with the board. Crawford stressed the numbers are estimates, and other potential costs may come up down the road.
“We’ve been sensitive to what we’ve ordered, and what construction has occurred. As we go through this, if the board decides to change the high school names, just as we always do, we will do this in a very fiscally conservative manner, in an economic way,” Crawford said. “There will be a grace period. This will not happen overnight. There will be things that come up and surprise us with things that we didn’t know about.”
Washmon said his estimate of the costs presented would be a total price tag of less than $300,000 for both schools.