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Jefferson Name-Change Debate Continues as New Rules Studied By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday July 05, 2005

One week after the contentious and narrowly rejected petition to change the name of Jefferson Elementary School split both the Berkeley School Board and the Berkeley community in general, the board voted unanimously Wednesday night to rescind the district’s school renaming policy until a new policy can be worked out. 

The job of writing a new policy now goes to the Board Policy Committee, which consists of Vice President Terry Doran and Director Shirley Issel. Doran voted to support the Jefferson name change petition while Issel voted to reject it. 

BUSD Superintendent Michele Lawrence said that Miriam Rokeach, president of the nonprofit Center for Youth Development through Law of the UC Berkeley School of Law, will be hired as a consultant to assist in the new policy development. 

Once the new policy proposal is written, it will be submitted to the board for discussion and approval. No timetable was given for that action, but Lawrence estimated that with the board out for a month-long summer break, consideration of the new policy is likely to take place sometime in the early fall. 

Meanwhile, no new school name change petitions can be initiated in the district. 

Board President Nancy Riddle said she expected the committee to “survey other schools and come back with a variety of alternatives that we can weigh.” 

Director Joaquin Rivera said that he thought the 20 percent threshold to initiate a school name change “might be too low.” Under present policy, the name change process is initiated by a petition signed by 20 percent of present school constituents. 

Rivera also said that while he had no concrete suggestions on how the new policy should be written, he said it should answer complaints—voiced during the Jefferson debate—that the larger Berkeley community, including the board itself, is left out of the debate until a short period at the end. 

When the Jefferson issue finally came to the board two weeks ago, President Riddle said that board members had “specifically kept out of the debate” in order not to be seen as influencing the initial vote by Jefferson Elementary staff, students, and parents and guardians. 

“There should be room for earlier board input,” Rivera said Wednesday night. “And we should somehow involve the larger community. The community owns the schools, and have a vested interest in the outcome.” 

The question of what constitutes a “school community” was pursued by Director John Selawsky. 

Under the now-suspended district policy, the board makes the final decision on a proposed name change only after an initial vote by what is called the “school community” of the school directly affected. That “school community” is narrowly defined as present students and staff at the school, and parents or guardians of presently-enrolled students. 

“The Jefferson vote raised the question of what constitutes a school community,” Selawsky said. “In all of our other processes that affect a particular school, we always bring in the surrounding neighborhood for input. Don’t they also have a stake in the school name?” Selawsky also said that he “wasn’t sure” that the school community should be confined to people who are connected to the school at the time of the vote, a definition that leaves out school alumni. Selawsky said that he did not yet have any answers for how that might be done practically. “I don’t have any answers for that,” he said. 

Student Director Lily Dorman-Colby said that while it is easy to define students, staff, and parents or guardians, deciding who constituted the school’s neighborhood community would be infinitely harder. 

“How much weight will be given to neighborhood organizations?” she asked. “And how will we reach people who might have an interest, but don’t necessarily attend meetings?” 

Only Vice President Doran said he didn’t necessarily advocate many changes being made in the name change policy. 

“I’m not very disturbed by our present policy,” Doran said. He only suggested that the policy should delineate what criteria the board should use for upholding or denying the vote taken by the school community. In the case of the Jefferson vote, Doran and Selawsky voted to uphold the Jefferson decision, stating that their only criteria should be to determine whether the school vote properly followed policy. In denying the Jefferson vote, directors Riddle, Issel, and Rivera said that the board should take the school opinion under advisement, but should retain the right to cast their own vote based upon whether or not they felt the school name change was best for the district. 

“I think the vote of the school community should supersede any other advice we receive,” Doran said. “The decision rightfully resides in the present participants at the school. That should be the heart and soul of the decision.” 

But Doran agreed with other board members that the decision should be made with input from the larger community, and that input should come earlier in the process. “The larger community should get the chance during the period when the issue is being debated within the school itself,” Doran argued, “rather than only during the pressure-cooker of the intense, hour-long debate when the board is making the final decision.” 

Doran said following the meeting that the new name change policy should make more provision for formal community presentations to school community members on a proposed name change before the school community takes its vote.