Richard Hyatt: School board needs to embrace community

September 17, 2013 

New Elementary School No. 7 finally has a name, but the process used to select it is now under fire.

Back-and-forth conversations over what to call the unfinished facility ended Monday when the Muscogee County School Board voted 7-2 to go along with rookie board member Athavia "A.J." Senior's recommendation of Dorothy Height -- the former president of the National Council of Negro Women.

Confusing everyone was Senior's original proposal of Samuel P. Charleston, a former principal of Carver High who for generations pushed for local black children to have the right to learn.

Only Senior truly understands her vacillation, but her colleagues followed a procedure adopted in 2006 that recognized the naming of a school stirs up serious community interest: "Whenever a school or School District facility is built in a given Board Member's district, that Board Member has the initial prerogative of proposing, by motion at a regular Board meeting, the name of the school or the facility. Once the motion is made, the motion is then, by the terms of this policy, tabled until the date of the next regular board meeting, at which time it shall be taken up for vote as with all other motions."

Once the vote was recorded, at-large member Cathy Williams called for a change and asked school board chairman Rob Varner to put the procedure on the agenda of a future meeting.

"We need to have more board input than just one board member," she said. "I also represent that school, and I have had no input."

Varner has asked for a report on how other systems name facilities. He will find this is a hot-button issue, whether it is choosing a name for an arena on a college campus or the naming of a walking bridge connecting two states.

Avaricious universities sometimes put a price tag on a name but local agencies often get bogged down in politics.

That happened in the school naming and may have contributed to the delay in naming the 14th Street walking bridge for former Mayor Frank K. Martin.

The link to Phenix City is due to get the late mayor's name Oct. 9 after a discussion that has taken almost as long as it took to finish the bridge.

Now that the school is named, Senior owes family and friends of Mr. Charleston a public apology. Hopefully a new policy would allow a private vetting so others will not be embarrassed.

Public participation should also be encouraged. If the consensus is to honor local contributors, be clear about that. Above all, be consistent.

It's time for this board to embrace the community and this would be one way to do that.

It's worth a try, for as Dorothy Height said: "I want to be remembered as one who tried."

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

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