Two weeks of heated debate about whether to rename Robert E. Lee High School in Baton Rouge or keep the name as it is likely will come to an end Thursday night when the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board plans to decide how to settle the controversy.
The School Board also is scheduled to vote Thursday on its annual general operating budget, coming in at almost $452 million. To get to this 350-page document, school officials have trimmed about $15 million in expenses, including cutting dozens of teaching positions, particularly in middle schools.
Also Thursday, the board is expected to approve a hike to health insurance premiums for all active employees and retirees by an average of 7.7 percent. Increases range from $5.86 more a month for active employees in the school system’s bare bones Core Plan to $76.24 more each month for certain retirees with families who participate in the more generous Buy Up Plan.
The Robert E. Lee High renaming debate comes after a $54.7 million reconstruction of the school and weeks before students arrive for the 2016-17 school year.
The debate was set in motion Feb. 23 when a group of Lee High parents urged Superintendent Warren Drake to rename the school Lee Magnet High School, excising “Robert E.” and its connection to the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Their request, including as it does “Magnet,” reflects the school’s conversion in 2013 to a dedicated magnet school.
A renaming committee held a sparsely attended meeting May 31 and came up with three suggestions for a new name: Lee Magnet High School, which Drake subsequently recommended as well as Harper Lee Magnet High School and Southdowns Magnet High School.
Two days later, a group of prominent black leaders in Baton Rouge urged the School Board to come up with more alternatives, particularly alternatives with no connection to Robert E. Lee.
Drake agreed to hold another meeting June 9, at which 36 speakers offered suggestions and thoughts. Some urged no change, some urged changes similar to those suggested by Lee High parents, and some suggested wholesale name changes.
Before and after the meeting, school officials also collected suggestions online, via text and in writing. Along with comments made June 9, the results have been compiled and given to the School Board for consideration. They add up to 116 pages.
Some comments are very short — “Do not change the name,” said Babette Debarros — while others go on for pages. Most of those making comments urge the board to either keep the school as Robert E. Lee High or shorten it to Lee High or Lee Magnet High. But many voices who oppose anything “Lee” chimed in as well, including a handful of Lee High alumni.
Previously suggested new school names came up, including Southdowns and Muhammad Ali. Some new suggestions focused on the location of the school such as Red Stick and River City High. Some connected the school to Lee’s science orientation, including Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein High. Two commentators suggested naming the school after longtime former Principal Jack Stokeld. One urged a lesser known Lee, George W. Lee, a Mississippi man who was killed in 1955 as he was organizing African-Americans to register to vote.
Another suggestion was Adolf Hitler School of Friendship and Tolerance. At a June 9 meeting, the Rev. Ralph Nea Moore also referenced the infamous Nazi leader when he told the School Board that naming a school after Robert E. Lee is as offensive to African-Americans as naming a school after Adolf Hitler would be to Jewish people.
The general operating budget, which would take effect July 1, calls for spending less and raising more money than last year’s budget approved by the School Board 12 months ago. But just as that budget was out of balance and relied on drawing down financial reserves, so does this one. Reserves, currently about $42 million, are to shrink to an estimated $28.1 million a year from now.
The school system’s general fund accounts for 70 percent of the more than $600 million the school system spends each year. The general fund is the system’s primary source of unrestricted money to pay for operating expenses, to finance new initiatives or to cover emergencies. Since 2010, the school system has cut the budget annually because of a mix of tight state funding, a variety of expenses and growing competition from charter schools.
The proposed 2016-17 general fund budget is the first Drake has had full control over. It cements in place a variety of changes Drake made in his first year, including the elimination of a number of Central Office positions. The document calls for spending $451.7 million while raising just $434.7 million in taxes and other revenue. Drake said he hopes to get out of this deficit-spending cycle in another year or two.