More than a name? Debate over Lee High never seriously considered before _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --The front facade of the new Lee High School which is nearing the finish line of a $54.7 million demolition and reconstruction and is set to open in August. the school will more than double in size and will be able to hold nearly 1,200 students once done, with some room to expand in the future.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday barely kept alive a request by Lee High School parents to rename the school while preserving the name “Lee,” facing down a barrage of complaints that the Baton Rouge school should have no connection to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The board voted 5-3 to consider again on June 16 changing the school’s official name from Robert E. Lee High School to Lee Magnet High School. The debate comes after a $54.7 million reconstruction of the school, which first opened in 1959, and weeks before students arrive.

Leslie Defley, president of Lee High’s Patriot Parents, said the parent-teacher organization began debating the idea last October and forwarded their name-change request earlier this year. Although school literature refers to “Lee High” and the school’s mascot was changed more than a decade ago from Rebels to Patriots, official documents such as school report cards still give the full name, Robert E. Lee High.

“Parents were frustrated because they would Google their school and they would find ‘Robert E. Lee’ and they’d go, ‘That’s not our school,’ ” Defley said.

A handful of prominent African-American leaders, however, came out in force Thursday to press the board to come up with a completely new name.

“Baton Rouge is supposed to be progressive. We’re supposed to be moving. But we’re still standing still,” said Mike McClanahan, president of the Baton Rouge branch of the NAACP. He has a son who just graduated from Lee High.

Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection in north Baton Rouge, read a quote from Lee in which the general said blacks were better off as slaves than in Africa.

“You are spending $50 million to honor a man who thought that blacks were three-fifths of a person,” Chambers said. “It’s disrespectful, and we should start anew.”

The board on Thursday also got their first up-close look at the $452 million proposed general operating budget for fiscal year 2016-17 that would cut positions for dozens of instructional coaches and middle school teachers as well as forgo about $2.5 million worth of school bus purchases.

The board plans to vote on the budget on June 16, the same day the Lee High issue returns.

Thursday’s debate on the best name for Lee High was somewhat of a surprise. Lee High School’s reopening, conversion to a dedicated magnet school and reconstruction have been several years in the making.

School system leaders throughout have stuck with the name Lee High, despite increasing controversy around the country over anything named after Civil War figures. New Orleans city leaders have approved the removal of four Jim Crow-era monuments, including a prominent statue of Robert E. Lee. Those removals are on hold while the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reviews a lawsuit filed to keep the statues in place.

Several alternatives to Lee High School were discussed Thursday, from author Harper Lee to deceased Baton Rouge minister T.J. Jemison. Any name change, however small, won’t be cheap.

“Basically every sign out there says Lee High or Lee Patriots,” said Earl Kern, program director with CSRS/Tillage Construction, which is overseeing the Lee High School project.

Kern said initial estimates for replacing the signs would cost “$250,000 and $300,000 minimum.”

In keeping with its name change policy, a lightly attended public forum was held Tuesday where attendees suggested three names: Lee Magnet High School, Southdowns Magnet High School and Harper Lee Magnet High School.

Ty Heard, a junior at Lee High, urged the board to go for Southern author Harper Lee to replace Robert E. Lee because it would allow the school to still be Lee High but would be a better choice.

“We would still be called Lee High, but we would stand for something more beautiful,” Heard said. Harper Lee is the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel championing civil rights.

Superintendent Warren Drake ended up recommending Lee Magnet High, as parents initially requested.

Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who is African-American, was the swing vote. She looked pained by the discussion and made a motion, which failed 4-4 along racial lines, to hold another, better publicized meeting of the naming committee. She then joined white board members Mark Bellue, Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason and David Tatman to debate the item again two weeks from now.

School Board President Barbara Freiberg, who represents the Southdowns area and is a graduate of Lee High, was not present Thursday. She said before the meeting she had a long-planned vacation that coincided with the meeting.

Board members Dawn Collins, Vereta Lee and Kenyetta Nelson-Smith, all of them African-American, came out against having “Lee” in the school’s name. Alumni also weighed in, on both sides.

A. Hays Town III, member of the Class of 1976 who is white, said Robert E. Lee is the perfect person to name a school after, especially since the high school has a science focus and Lee was an engineer.

“He was a Southerner, he was a gentleman, and he was a U.S. Army officer,” Town said.

Walter McLaughlin, who is black and graduated in 1998, said he enjoyed his time at Lee High, but attending a school with “Rebels” as its mascot infected his whole experience, especially on game days. “You almost feel like Jackie Robinson to some extent,” McLaughlin said. “You’d have to bite your tongue when every day you are faced with the reality that this is not for you.”