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School Board Postpones Jefferson Name Change By J DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday June 10, 2005

The Jefferson Elementary School name controversy did not end with the decision by Jefferson parents/guardians, school staff, and students to change the school’s name to Sequoia. 

On Wednesday members of the Board of Directors of the Berkeley Unified School District indicated that they were as divided as they could be on whether or not to accept the name change. And with the district asking for public input before a vote in two weeks, the conflict could escalate. 

It was the first time the board weighed in on the name change. Board President Nancy Riddle said, “The board did not want to meddle in the process while it was being decided at the school site.” 

The Jefferson name controversy began two years ago when a group of parents, guardians, and Jefferson staff petitioned the district to change the school’s name. 

“Thomas Jefferson is revered as the primary author of one of the world’s most respected and beloved documents,” the petition read. “Jefferson is also a man who held as many as 150 African and African-American men, women and children in bondage, denying them the very rights which he had asserted for all in the Declaration of Independence.” 

The petition continued, “A school name which fails to acknowledge or respect the depth and importance of their people’s collective sorrow is personally offensive. … It is time to consider a name which unites us as a community.” 

The Jefferson School community voted last month to change the school’s name to Sequoia. Students and staff voted to change the school’s name by wide margins. The vote among parents and guardians was closer, 67 to 61 to change the name. 

The school vote is a recommendation that must be approved by the school board. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, Board Vice President Terry Doran and Director John Selawsky indicated that they would probably vote to approve the name change, while directors Joaquin Rivera and Shirley Issel said they would vote against it. Riddle said she had not yet made up her mind. 

Riddle said that since she lives near Jefferson School, there is a chance that the California Fair Political Practices Commission might ask her to recuse herself if the name change would have an economic effect on her property. 

Riddle said that she was “horrifically conflicted” on the name change. 

“I admire Jefferson’s legacy on education,” she said. “Most of my heroes have stood on his shoulders in that area, and most of the work I do in this district is inspired by him. But this is a board that respects the community process unless we don’t think the outcome is good for the general community.” 

Riddle also answered critics who have said that the name change discussion was a “waste of time” during a period when the district is struggling to make ends meet. 

“I think it’s good that we live in Berkeley and are having these kinds of discussions,” she said. “I think it’s very healthy.” 

The sharpest comments came from Issel, who accused name change supporters of “holding hostage our educational institutions by emotional terrorism.” 

She said, “I don’t find your arguments compelling. I find them offensive. I pray to God that none of you are judged by the standards that you’ve used to judge this situation. Somehow you’ve located the source of your discomfort, and you have decided that by changing the name of the school you’ll become more comfortable. I don’t think that will happen.” 

Issel said she agreed that “it is troubling to all of us that Jefferson held slaves,” but the district should recognize that “all of us are less than perfect. Our Founding Fathers were less than perfect.” 

Rivera said he would give his reasons for opposing the name change at the next board meeting, when the board votes. 

While neither Selawsky or Doran indicated their position on Wednesday night on the propriety of a Berkeley school named after Thomas Jefferson, both said they believed that the board vote should reflect the will of the Jefferson community. 

“My opinion of Jefferson is irrelevant,” Selawsky said. “The board vote should not be an endorsement of the school name, it should be based on whether or not the school community followed the board policy in reaching this vote.... From what I’ve heard so far, the policy was followed in this instance.” 

Selawsky noted—and other board members agreed—that the district’s name change policy itself may be flawed, and needs to be reconsidered. 

Complaints had been raised both on the board and in the Jefferson community that the school parent/guardian vote is restricted to parents and guardians of present school students, leaving out others who have had long association with the school. 

Complaints have also been made that early elementary school children aren’t equipped to make an informed decision on a school name change. 

“My five year old nephew told me he voted for Ralph Bunche as the school name because it sounded like one of his favorite cereals, Honey Bunches of Oats,” said a parent who opposed the Jefferson name change. “Is that any way to run a school district?”