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Nearly 100 ideas to rename Tampa’s Lee Elementary

This signed photo of Robert E. Lee was for sale at a 2009 auction in St. Petersburg.  [TIMES FILES]
This signed photo of Robert E. Lee was for sale at a 2009 auction in St. Petersburg. [TIMES FILES]
Published Nov. 13, 2018|Updated Nov. 14, 2018

From the obvious to the ironic and back again, Hillsborough residents racked their collective brains to find the best new name for Lee Elementary School.

MaryEllen Elia was suggested, for the last superintendent.

But that won't happen. A newly revised school board policy says a school cannot be named after a living person.

That also means former First Lady Michelle Obama is off the table – as are NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The renaming discussion, initiated two years ago as many Southern cities took down Confederate monuments, comes at an opportune time for century-old Robert E. Lee Elementary. The district is about to rebuild the popular magnet school, which suffered a devastating electrical fire at the tail end of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

No one was injured, and the district negotiated a full replacement with its insurance carrier.

As it rebuilds, the district needs to settle on a color scheme and a mascot. The current mascot is Traveller, the name of the Confederate general's horse.

Some Tampa residents have argued in the past to retain the name and, in the early days of the controversy, a few attended School Board meetings in Confederate garb.

Supporters of the school, regardless of political bent, have argued that, despite what it says on the building's red brick wall, the name is simply "Lee" and has been for more than a decade.

A meeting is called for 4 p.m. Thursday. If it wants to, the School Board can vote to keep the name as is. Or it can ask staff to gather more names for a future vote.

However, attorney Jim Porter said, "I think the anticipation is that they will choose a name" on Thursday.

Sixty-two names that were submitted meet the district's guidelines, which allow for a geographic designation or a historic figure who is no longer alive.

Suggestions included baseball legend Jackie Robinson, author Harper Lee and Sen. John McCain. Someone suggested Gen. Ulysses Grant, the Civil War leader who fought on the Union side and went onto become President.

Heights Elementary and Tampa Heights Elementary were suggested in recognition of the neighborhood.

Other sources of inspiration: Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was shot to death in what became a notorious "Stand Your Ground" case; and Bolivia-born educator Jaime Alfonso Escalante, whose success teaching math to urban students inspired the movie, "Stand and Deliver."

Someone suggested "Unity Elementary." That was among the 25 discarded names, as it did not meet any criteria in the district policy.

Nor did "The South Shall Rise Again."