Richard Hyatt: Naming of new elementary school causing unwarranted conflict

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerAugust 15, 2013 

When officials try to decide what to call a new school, the name game often turns into a full-contact sport.

The risk of serious injury grows greater every day as the Muscogee County School Board bickers over whether to name the system's newest elementary school for a prominent local educator or a person who would need a map to find her way to Columbus.

A few months ago the process was clean and quick. Board member Mark Cantrell proposed naming a new middle school for Judge Aaron Cohn and everyone celebrated.

It has been anything but clean and quick this time around as board member A.J. Senior threw out the name of former Carver High principal S.P. Charleston only to withdraw her proposal and suggest the elementary school be named for Dorothy Height, a beloved civil rights leader from Washington, D.C.

The debate will continue at Monday's school board meeting when former students and colleagues of Charleston flood the room in support of a man who paved the way for their success in life at a time when black children used hand-me-down textbooks and went to school in second-rate classrooms.

It's unclear why Senior changed her mind, but her decision to nominate a person who had nothing to do this community has set off a firestorm. Questioning the move to Height sounds like a small-town reaction, but it also reminds us how personally attached we are to our neighborhood schools.

This isn't the first time the local board has faced such a conflict, and they are not alone. School systems all over the country have heard the same arguments, leading some to shy away from naming schools from any person living or dead.

The process now being followed by the local board gives individual members the right to name schools in their district. What we're seeing now should tell us the process doesn't always work.

Because of the process, in the heat of the moment the name of a Samuel Prince Charleston has been sullied and the name of Dorothy Height has been needlessly questioned.

To avoid last-minute political maneuvering, the board should consider the appointment of a naming committee that would vet and consider potential school names in a calm, unrushed manner. The committee could be composed of board members, school administrators, teachers, local historians and parents.

Such a panel could research every possible name and then compile a list that would be available when a new school is built. When that time comes, the board could choose the proper name from that list.

Until the school board revises its process, we run the risk of more embarrassing moments, and if S.P. Charleston or Dorothy Height could talk, they would say a change is needed.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him on Twitter@hyattrichard.

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