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Board Vetoes Jefferson School Name Change By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday June 24, 2005

Following dramatic remarks by a clearly conflicted Board President Nancy Riddle, the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Directors voted 3-2 Wednesday night to deny a petition to change the name of Jefferson Elementary School to Sequoia. 

Her voice breaking up and visibly close to tears, Riddle told a hushed crowd that “I know that I will be disappointing some people who I care about, but I can’t support this.” Riddle’s succeeding no vote on the petition broke the 2-2 deadlock on the board that was known two weeks ago when the remaining board members publicly announced how they would vote on the issue.  

As expected, Board Vice President Terry Doran and director John Selawsky voted to accept the results of the Jefferson vote, while directors Shirley Issel and Joaquin Rivera voted against the proposed name change. The vote followed an hour-long hearing that preceded the board meeting, along with another half-hour of public comment time during the meeting itself that was dominated by supporters and opponents of the name change. 

The decision rejected a district-authorized vote held during the last week in May that saw the name Sequoia beat out Jefferson among students, staff, and parents and guardians at the school. 

Division over whether the board should honor the results of that school community vote was reflected in the board vote itself. Selawsky and Doran argued that the board’s name change policy only gave the board the latitude to determine if the petition process had been properly followed. Riddle, Rivera, and Issel all said that the board had the discretion to accept or reject the school community vote using the criteria of whether the name change was best for Berkeley as a whole. 

Berkeley’s difficulty in coming to a decision on the emotionally charged issue was summed up by long-time Berkeley political and environmental activist Elliot Cohen, who said he was torn on what to do about the proposed name change from the slaveowning father of American democracy to a stately California tree. “I like trees,” Cohen told board members. “I don’t like slavery. I like Jefferson.” He put up his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. 

Supporters of the name change in attendance at the board meeting appeared to outnumber opponents by a large margin. 

During the public presentations, each side accused the other side of engaging in tactics of intimidation. 

Carrie Adams, a white Jefferson parent and a name-change opponent, said that she had not participated in much of the two-year name-change discussions at Jefferson because “I felt intimidated. I have been held emotionally hostage, and I’m not the only one who feels this way.” She said that Jefferson school community members who did not support the name change were accused of racism, and “I am not a racist. I abhor slavery. But anyone who can look 200 years in the past and pass judgment, it’s like armchair quarterbacking. When do we move on?” Calling the name-change campaign “a disaster,” Adams said that “it has pulled apart something that was together.” 

That was countered by Maggie Riddle, a white Jefferson teacher and a name-change proponent, who said that she “felt intimidated as a teacher advocate for this change. Two weeks ago in these same chambers, I was called an emotional terrorist. Supporters of the name change have received threatening e-mails and veiled threats. After I announced my support for the name change, many of my fellow teachers stopped talking to me.” Riddle added that “if anybody has been the victim of emotional terrorism and intimidation in this country, it’s been the African-American and the Native American community.” 

Supporters and opponents also sparred over whether adoption of the name change would signal a diminishing of both Jefferson as a historical figure and Jefferson’s ideas in Berkeley’s education process. 

“We don’t name things after people to celebrate those people,” Bruce Poropat said. “We name them as a way of recognizing their role in history. And no one had more of a role in American history than Jefferson. We need to preserve our history, good or bad.”  

And Barbara Wittstock, who said she attended the Jefferson-founded University of Virginia, said that “if you start doing name changes” solely on the basis of the holding of slaves, “you might end up with teachers refusing to teach the Declaration of Independence” because it was written by a slaveholder. 

But Deborah Ager, a Jefferson parent, said that “no one has suggested that we launder our history. No one has said that we shouldn’t teach continue to teach about Jefferson. No one has said that we not teach the Declaration of Independence.” And other name-change supporters argued that in honoring the Jefferson school community’s democratic vote to change the school’s name, the board would be honoring Jefferson’s ideal of respecting democracy. 

The board’s rejection vote set off an emotional scene in the council chambers at Old City Hall that simultaneously captured both the beauty and the bitter divisiveness of the failed two-year attempt to change the school name. As soon as the vote was announced, many of the disappointed supporters of the proposed name change stood and sang the civil rights standard “We Shall Overcome,” holding lime green printed flyers reading “Support Democracy. Approve Sequoia.” Already beginning a victory celebration, at least one opponent of the name change turned to the supporters and sang back, derisively, “Get over it.” 

Meanwhile, other name-change supporters stormed out of the chambers, berating board members as they left. “Unbelieveable! Unbelievable!” one supporter said, over and over. “An almost all-white board has told African-Americans that you only want to hear from us what you want us to say,” an African-American teacher told anyone who was willing to listen, including name change opponents who shouted back, “All African-Americans don’t support changing the school’s name.” A white-haired African-American man shook his finger at board members and declared, several times, “White people win! Niggers lose! That’s the message.” BUSD Public Information Officer Mark Coplan ran and placed himself between the board dais and another name-change supporter, Zachary Running Wolf, leading to a heated exchange between the two men. Short, sharp arguments broke out between supporters and opponents, both inside the chambers and outside in the hallway as both sides filed out. One young Jefferson student, who had spoken in favor of the name change, was led out in tears. With the board meeting itself halted for almost 15 minutes by the display, several board members—among them board vice president Terry Doran and director Shirley Issel—left their seats at the dais to walk among the slowly dispersing crowd, holding calming conversations. 

Through it all, the singing of “We Shall Overcome” through several stanzas continued for many minutes. 

When the name change petition came to the board two weeks ago Riddle had indicated that she was divided on the issue, and that internal conflict was evident throughout her remarks. “I knew when the petition first appeared two years ago that it was going to be a difficult decision,” she said, “mostly because of my ties to Jefferson.” Riddle, whose children attended the school, had said two weeks ago that much of her educational philosophy was based upon Jefferson’s work. She added that “I’ve gone back on forth on what my decision will be several times in the last two weeks” and, in fact, appeared to be still wavering even as she spoke. 

In the end, she said her mind was made up by the fact that her children had attended schools named after both Thomas Jefferson and black nationalist leader Malcolm X, both of whom she called “flawed.” “I think the juxtaposition of these two men is important,” she said. “I think our children will benefit from studying these complex men.”›