Proposal for name of new Muscogee County elementary school runs into more opposition

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 12, 2013 

For the second straight month, the name for the Muscogee County School District's newest elementary school has sparked controversy.

This time, the person responsible for the nomination vowed to stick with her choice, but a divided Muscogee County School Board will vote on the recommendation next month.

During the board's work session Monday evening, District 3 representative Athavia "A.J." Senior, remained steadfast despite opposition from some colleagues that the school scheduled to open in August 2014 should be named after Dorothy Height, whom President Obama once called "the godmother of civil rights."

Board members Naomi Buckner of District 4, Mark Cantrell of District 6 and county-wide representative Cathy Williams voiced concern that Height doesn't have a Columbus connection.

"I'm not saying anything against Miss Height -- she's done a lot for the country -- but it seems to me we do have people, local people, in our city of Columbus who would bring more honor," Buckner said.

Cantrell said he never heard of Height until he read about Senior's nomination Monday morning in the Ledger-Enquirer.

Williams even suggested an alternative name: Eddie T. Lindsey Jr., her former principal at Spencer High, who integrated the district's headquarters when he became its first black assistant superintendent in 1975.

Lindsey died Monday morning.

"I can't think of a more worthy person," Williams said.

But board policy doesn't give Williams the authority to make such a nomination. The board member representing the district where the new school is built has that power, although the board still must vote to approve the name. The policy also requires a monthlong waiting period. So after Senior makes her nomination at next Monday's 6 p.m. board meeting, the board will vote on it Sept. 16.

"Everything doesn't have to be about Columbus to be honored and recognized," Senior said. "… I ask this board to diversify."

Board member Pat Hugley Green of District 1 said naming a school for someone outside of Columbus doesn't slight anyone local.

"Dr. Height is a national leader, a national figure, and what we can learn from her leadership we can teach that to our children," Green said.

District 8 representative Beth Harris emphasized the board's history of yielding to the nominator's choice. She noted she didn't want the middle school the district opened this year to be named after Aaron Cohn, but she voted for Cantrell's nomination out of respect for his prerogative. Cohn helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp during World War II and became the nation's oldest and longest-serving juvenile court judge before he died last year.

"I am uncomfortable with this entire conversation," Harris said.

Williams countered, "That is the role of this board: to have this conversation."

Senior said nominating Height came from discussions with her constituents. She was prepared to recommend Samuel P. Charleston, the deceased educator and first black jury member in a Columbus federal trial, as the name for the new school. But after her recommendation was on the Ledger-Enquirer's front page two weeks ago, phone calls prompted her to pull the agenda item July 15 and delay the vote. Senior said then that she was asked to consider other names and that she welcomes the public's input.

The school, now known as New Elementary School No. 7, is being built on Benning Drive. It will replace Cusseta Road and Muscogee elementary schools, which will close and merge at the end of this school year. Freeman & Associates of Columbus and Balfour Beatty Construction of Atlanta are the joint contractors. Hecht Burdeshaw of Columbus is the architect. The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax county voters approved in 2009 is funding the $17.5 million project.

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