After being criticized last month for suggesting to name Muscogee County's newest elementary school for someone without a local connection, District 3 representative Athavia "A.J." Senior saw her proposal prevail at Monday night's school board meeting.
The school being constructed on Benning Drive will be named Dorothy Height, whom President Obama called "the godmother of the civil rights movement." She died in 2010.
The $17.5 million project, funded by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax county voters passed in 2009, is scheduled to be finished in August 2014. It will replace Cusseta Road and Muscogee elementary schools, which will merge into the new school.
Board policy allows the member representing the new school's district to recommend the name. The board approved Senior's proposal 7-2. Naomi Buckner of District 4 and Cathy Williams, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative, voted against it.
Mark Cantrell of District 6 also had objected to Height's lack of a local connection. Monday night, however, he dropped his opposition and explained why: "Miss Height, I think, is somebody that is a strong leader. She did many, many great things in her years while living, and I think a lot of children, especially young ladies, will have somebody to look up to."
Cantrell added that he still would prefer a local name, but he respects Senior's choice.
Buckner said she agrees Height is worthy of such an honor, "but I differ in one thing because I continue to think that we have strong leaders and great Americans in Columbus, Ga."
Williams wants the board to consider revising the policy and allow more input. "The process is clearly flawed," she said.
After the meeting, Senior expressed relief.
"I think it's going to be great once we're up and running," she said. "The name's going to be great. We're looking forward to a big ribbon-cutting ceremony. I'm just thrilled."
Two months ago, Senior's original idea was to name the school after deceased Carver High principal Samuel Charleston. He was the city's first black jury member in a federal trial and served on the local boards of the YMCA, Urban League, Housing Authority and March of Dimes.
But after the Ledger-Enquirer reported her recommendation, Senior said she received phone calls that 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.
During the public comment period at board meetings, no residents have spoken in favor of naming the school after Height. Three residents spoke against the proposal last month and urged the board to choose Charleston.
Monday night, Senior said opposition to Height as the school's name has "kind of died down. Everybody has gotten used to it."
The board unanimously honored former superintendent John Phillips with emeritus status "for extraordinary and meritorious contributions to the fulfillment of the district's mission and for his dedication to the Muscogee County School District, ensuring that this is a community that cherishes its public schools."
Phillips came to Muscogee County as superintendent in January 2003 from Bartow County, Ga. He retired in August 2008 then served the district as interim superintendent until the board hired Susan Andrews from Harris County in December 2008. After Andrews retired at the end of June 2012, Phillips served the district as interim superintendent again until the board hired Lewis. Phillips remained as a temporary assistant to Lewis through August.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson also honored Phillips with a proclamation, declaring Sept. 16, 2013, as Dr. John A. Phillips Jr. Day in Columbus.