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Hillsborough to move slowly on name change for school honoring Robert E. Lee

Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies & Technology, formerly named Robert E. Lee Elementary, originally opened its doors in the early 1900s as the Michigan Avenue Grammar School. Now some School Board members want to rename the predominantly black school, but the district is proceeding slowly. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times]
Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies & Technology, formerly named Robert E. Lee Elementary, originally opened its doors in the early 1900s as the Michigan Avenue Grammar School. Now some School Board members want to rename the predominantly black school, but the district is proceeding slowly. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Aug. 23, 2017

TAMPA — While officials around the nation move quickly to address the issue of public monuments to the Confederacy, the Hillsborough County School Board opted Tuesday to keep moving slowly on a proposal to rename a school honoring Robert E. Lee.

Board members tinkered with parts of their policy on renaming schools, but left unchanged the provision that requires at least 18 months to pass before a new name can take effect. That means Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies & Technology will continue to bear the confederate general's name at least until 2018.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: As Confederate monuments fall, Tampa's Robert E. Lee Elementary could get name change

The Tampa Heights school, also known as Robert E. Lee Elementary, has an enrollment of about 300 students, of whom 57 percent are African-American.

Two board members have pushed the district to consider changing the school's name — Susan Valdes, who brought it up two years ago, and Tamara Shamburger, the board's only African American member, who raised the subject in June.

But both were silent on the issue at Tuesday's workshop, where the discussion focused on the renaming policy's confusing title and the way it contradicts another policy about how long a building's honoree must be out of public office.

Subject to a hearing and vote at a regular board meeting, the policy will stand, with only those minor revisions.

Officially, the 18-month clock is running toward a possible name change. That process began on June 13, when Shamburger implored the district to rename the school, arguing that if Lee's side had prevailed in the Civil War, a majority of the school's students would be slaves.

"It's about doing the right thing," she said at the time.

Two years before that, after a racially motivated church massacre in Charleston, S.C., Valdes said it might be time to rethink the Robert E. Lee name.

Then the board's chairwoman, Valdes suggested naming the school after President Barack Obama instead. She made a motion directing the administration to explore the idea. Minutes of the meeting show it passed by a vote of 5-1.

That summer, a group of children in a program called "Kids, Not Criminals" lined up and told the board the name offended them and they, too, wanted it changed.

Nothing happened after that. And on Tuesday, Valdes — during a discussion on a different policy — said the administration should have followed through with the board's request.

When asked about the issue after Tuesday's workshop, Shamburger said she would like to see the 18 month requirement removed for future school renamings.

But, she said, she does not believe the Robert E. Lee situation would be covered by any revision because the district already is starting the process of considering a name change.

Chief of Schools Harrison Peters, who is in charge of that effort, is consulting with the school's principal and area superintendent to design a way to get community input.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

Attorney Jim Porter, who advises the board, pointed out that the existing policy seems designed to prevent the district from taking the costly step of renaming a building without careful consideration.

The policy says a school name is considered "permanent" and that the 18 months are "for community involvement, deliberation, discussion, and debate."

"You have to respect the process," Porter said.

Shamburger said she wants to proceed cautiously to avoid any misstep that could derail plans to change the name.

"We are being very methodical, doing everything in the proper order," she said. "If that means waiting the 18 months to keep our case, if you will, air tight, then it's really worth it to the community."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.