J.E.B. Stuart High School will bear a new name starting in 2019, as the Fairfax County School Board passed a motion to rename the Falls Church school at its July 27 regular meeting.
Cheers and applause erupted from a sizable portion of the crowd observing the meeting when the 11-person board voted 7-2, with two abstentions, to approve a renaming proposal introduced by Mason District Representative Sandy Evans.
Sully District Representative Thomas Wilson and Springfield District’s Elizabeth Schultz opposed the measure, while Lee District Representative Tamara Derenak Kaufax and Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin abstained.
The vote brought some temporary closure to a two-year-long, polarizing debate over the appropriateness of a Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) building sporting the name of a man best known for serving as a general for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
In addition to stating that Stuart should adopt a new name by the start of the 2019 school year, Evans’s approved motion directed FCPS staff to start the process of finding that new name this fall.
“I’m really excited,” Lily Beres, a rising senior at Stuart, said. “I’ve been working on this issue about two years now, so I’m glad to finally pretty much have an answer. Now we just have work towards getting a new name fully implemented in the next two years.”
The push to rename J.E.B. Stuart High School started in June 2015 when five students showed a video proposing the name change during their film class.
While those original students have all now graduated, their campaign found traction with some of their classmates, such as Beres, along with alumni and members of the public both within the Stuart community and in the larger Fairfax County area.
An online petition started by film and television producer Bruce Cohen, a Stuart alum, and actress Julianne Moore, who attended Stuart but did not graduate from there, garnered more than 35,000 signatures on the website Change.org.
The Fairfax County branch of the NAACP also emerged as a strong advocate for the “Change the Name” campaign.
Stuart students brought the issue to the school board’s attention later that year, and the board started paving the way for a potential change on Dec. 17, 2015 with the approval of a revision to FCPS’s Policy 8170.5, which addressed the renaming of repurposed facilities. The board amended the policy with an added line allowing for a new name to be considered for a school or facility “where some other compelling need exists.”
The public engagement phase of the renaming process involved a survey sent out on May 12, 2016 and a community meeting at Stuart on May 23, 2016.
While a vote on the proposed name change was initially scheduled for June 11, 2016 meeting, the board stepped back on that decision after some community members argued that the process was moving too quickly.
Board members instead voted on July 28, 2016 to create an ad hoc working group tasked with more closely examining the benefits and drawbacks of changing Stuart’s name, the extent of community support for such a change, and the possible financial impact.
The vote on whether to rename J.E.B. Stuart High School at last arrived close to a year after the school board approved the creation of the ad hoc committee.
Evans introduced her motion around 8:13 p.m. after the board heard 15 citizen comments, all of them concerning the Stuart naming issue.
“Tonight, we look to bring resolution to a difficult issue,” the Mason District representative and former vice chair said when speaking to her motion. “…It’s clear that, at best, this is a highly controversial name that evokes negative feelings in a significant portion of the community.”
What followed was a two-and-a-half hour debate that centered as much on how the board has handled the renaming process as the issues of inclusion and history at the heart of the conflict over Stuart.
Derenak Kaufax prompted a discussion about board procedure by introducing a substitute motion that called on the board to take no action on the Stuart renaming issue so that it could go back and “adhere to its existing published policy and regulations regarding the potential renaming.”
Expressing disappointment that the ad hoc working group had not found a possible compromise, with the “keeper” and “change” factions instead turning in separate reports, the Lee District representative argued that the board’s process was flawed because key phrases in the renaming policy had been left undefined, including what would constitute “sufficient community support” or “compelling need.”
“For me, the issue is good governance,” Schultz, who supported Derenak Kaufax’s motion, said. “We’re making up the rules as we go along.”
In her motion, Evans wrote that there is a compelling need to change the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School, because the Confederacy’s principles go against FCPS’s values of diversity, inclusion, and equity, and because “a significant number of current students, alumni, and other members of the Stuart community” had requested a less controversial name.
The motion also cites Stuart’s lack of another principal legacy or contribution to the community and the fact that the name was not drawn from a “local magisterial, neighborhood or street name” as justifications for a name change.
Opponents to the name change argue that Evans’s explanation for why there is a compelling need to change Stuart’s name seems arbitrary, designed to specifically apply to this situation as opposed to following a more general policy that could provide guidance for future cases.
They also question why the renaming discussion proceeded past the community input stage when the survey issued by the board found 56 percent of respondents opposed a name change, compared to the 35 percent who supported it.
Evans asserted that the board saw sufficient support for a name change from the more than one-third of respondents who said they were in favor of one.
“Had we waited for polls to show majority support for integration, who knows how much longer we would have waited?” at-large member Ryan McElveen said, noting that two-thirds of white Americans opposed the desegregation of schools prior to the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
Derenak Kaufax’s substitute motion ultimately failed 5-6. Derenak Kaufax, McLaughlin, Wilson, Schultz, and Mount Vernon District Representative and vice chair Karen Corbett Sanders supported it.
Of the board members who supported the substitute motion, Corbett Sanders was the only person who then also voted in favor of Evans’s main motion to rename Stuart.
Stuart community resident Denise Patton-Pace, one of the leaders of the “Keep the Name” coalition, characterizes the board’s approval of the name change as evidence of a corrupt process, saying that the decision should have been based on the Stuart community but the ad hoc working group had included members who were not even residents of Fairfax County.
“I think they made a misstep tonight,” Patton-Pace said. “The first motion to go back and follow their regulation instead of making things up as they go along was the important thing to do, and I don’t think we can trust them.”
Beres disputes the notion that people who opposed the name change were ignored or silenced, as suggested by an email from a Stuart rising senior that Wilson read aloud during the board meeting.
“There was never any coordinated group of students who were against the change,” Beres said. “That’s their prerogative that they never wanted to coalesce around it…We weren’t really allowed to speak about it in school that much…so I don’t know where that came from.”
Now that the school board has officially approved a name change for Stuart, the next step is determining what exactly that new name will be.
FCPS staff has also been directed to develop a mechanism for private funding with the expectation that private funding will cover “a substantial portion” of costs, which activities and athletic programs director Bill Curran has reported could run anywhere from $400,000 to $900,000.
FCPS Regulation 8170.7 dictates that community meetings must be held to solicit recommendations for a new name. These meetings are open to the general public with any attendees permitted to suggest names, but voting “will be limited to those participants residing in the school’s attendance area.”
Voting for the school name has been scheduled to take place on Sept. 16 between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. at J.E.B. Stuart High School.
The community’s top recommendation, as determined by a weighted point system, will go to the division superintendent, who is charged with developing a formal recommendation for the school board to consider.
In her motion, Evans suggests that the community consider simply removing the “J.E.B.” and leaving the school’s name as Stuart High School, but the recommendation has provoked a largely negative reaction even from name change supporters.
“I’m happy that they decided to change the name, but not happy with that suggestion that they threw in there that we should consider the name Stuart,” Stuart pyramid resident and ad hoc committee member Stephen Spitz said.
Spitz has been involved in the “Change the Name” campaign almost since its inception and helped start the Change.org petition.
Like many name change supporters, he believes that the school should be renamed after a woman or person of color, since FCPS currently does not have any schools named after a person who is not a white man.
Alice Jackson Stuart, an educator who became the first known African-American person to seek admission into a Virginia state graduate school when she applied to the University of Virginia in 1935, has been floated as a possibility.
“In a county as diverse as Fairfax County, we should have schools that are representative, in every way, of the residents of the county,” Spitz said. “The whole idea is the name of the high school should inspire and motivate the students to learn and study.”