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After Tense Public Comment, Austin School Board Approves Lee Elementary Name Change

Kate McGee/KUT
The Austin School Board voted last night to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary in Hyde Park.

Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Hyde Park will get a new name later this spring.

Last night, the Austin School Board voted to start the re-naming process. It’s been a long conversation that has divided members of the community, but the school board ultimately opted to change the name of the school on a vote of 8-0, with one board member abstaining.

Shelby Little, who spoke before the board last night, told members the school shouldn’t be renamed because of what he called “political correctness.”

“The current anti-Confederate hysteria will pass,” he said. “Yielding to ignorance and political correctness in the name of so-called educational and social progress is a disservice to this community.”

Robert Reed told the board the decision was simple: the name should be changed because of Lee’s role in the Confederacy.

“Robert E Lee would’ve fought to keep my great grandfather a slave. And you can sit here and talk about all the tremendous things he did. I’m sure he never forgot Mother’s Day,” Reed said. “The bottom line was that he fought to keep slaves in bondage.”

At times, the public comment period got tense, and Trustee Ted Gordon said he felt the racial tension was high.  Audible gasps were heard from the crowd after public commenter Joseph Capone spoke.

“Man says he’s upset because his granddaddy was a slave. My grand mom was on the 1912 rolls of Indians and freedmen. I’ll take your slavery and raise you a genocide any day of the week – any day,” he said. “We have a failed education system. These people believe the War of Northern Aggression was fought to free or slave a group of people. You can’t tell 635,000 men died because they gave a crap about that.”

Ultimately, the board decided to support Lee Elementary’s Campus Advisory Council, which wants to change the name. The council is mostly made up of parents and staff.

Trustee Ann Teich chose to abstain from the vote. She doesn’t believe changing school names addresses what she calls the larger issue of racism.

“I don’t see a plan to really delve into the racism and prejudice that has been alluded to by the Lee community that is represented here,” Teich said. “So, I can’t support this name change. I will abstain however because there have been some rather ugly things said by opposition. And I don’t approve of that. I don’t condone that.”

School Board President Kendall Pace says, ultimately, the entire conversation is about Robert E Lee’s own choice to fight for the Confederacy.

“Sometimes we are unfairly remembered for small choices that lead to big places in history, and all the positives things that supporters have said about Lee may be true. I’m sure they’re true, but it doesn’t absolve his choice,” Pace said.

Next, the Campus Advisory Council will choose three replacement names for the school. The board will vote on one of those three options in May. It’s still unclear how much it will cost to change the name. 

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