TYLER, Texas — The Tyler ISD Board of Trustees is holding a special meeting Thursday evening to debate and possibly vote to change the names of both Robert E. Lee and John Tyler high schools, School Board President Was Washmon announced Sunday at a press conference.
Washmon said if the school board votes to change the names of the school, the board will then begin to process of renaming each school.
In the weeks since the name controversy reignited, particularly since the last board meeting, members spent time engaging with members of the Tyler community and other public leaders to discuss the possibility of changing the name of both high schools.
"Since our last board meeting, individual board members have been meeting with, listening to and getting feedback from the community on this issue," Washmon said in his prepared statement at the press conference. "These meetings have been comprised of groups of citizens and trusted individuals therein who represent a true cross section of town."
Among those in the community listed by name in the press conferences as influential people the board talked to were John Tyler legend Earl Campbell and former Tyler Mayor and current State Senator Kevin Eltife, an alumnus of Robert E. Lee High School.
"These are just two of a very long list of local leaders who have voiced their support of addressing this issue," Washmon said, flanked by board members Artis Newsome (Disctrict) and Andy Bergfeld (District 7).
Washmon said the controversy surrounding the names of the high schools, particularly Robert E. Lee, have hurt the unity of both the Tyler ISD and City of Tyler. Washmon said as both men the schools named owned slaves and served the Confederacy, changing the names of both schools will be on the agenda.
"Objectivity is a word that must permeate our thought processes and decisions as a school board," Washmon said at the close of his statement. "Although Robert E. Lee High School has sparked the debated and garnered much attention, if we apply the same set of criteria used to justify the consideration of changing it, we must also objectively apply that same criteria to John Tyler."
Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing protests across the country, students and other members of the Tyler community led a renewed effort to change the name of both Robert E. Lee High School and John Tyler High School. Currently, a Change.org petition demanding the district to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School has more than 15,000 signatures.
Conversely, a rival petition to keep the name has almost 4,000 signatures.
The Tyler ISD Board of Trustees have not put the schools' names as an agenda item on a board meeting since\ the last effort to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School failed in 2018. However, the school board did briefly address it at a meeting on June 22.
READ PRESIDENT WASHMON'S FULL STATEMENT HERE:
"As you all know, we have had a busy last five months of dealing with COVID-19 and the impact and restrictions it has had on our ability to take care of the educational, social, and emotional needs of our students in order to create successful student outcomes.
"Now, on top of that and handling our daily lives that include work, kids, taking care of family, etc., we’ve had the unique opportunity as part of our “volunteer job” as trustees, to sit and listen to our community about an issue that has once again surfaced, as it did in the not too distant past.
"The names of our high schools, gifted to us by a prior generation, have been the source of much debate and consternation in our beloved community, and candidly have become an increasingly bigger stumbling block to our focus as a school district on successful students outcomes; and our efforts toward unity as a city.
"Since our last board meeting, individual members have been meeting with, listening to, and getting feedback from the community on this issue. The meetings have been comprised of groups of citizens and trusted individuals therein who represent a true cross-section of town; and we have heard the opinions and concerns of the community.
"Therefore, with much prayer and consideration, it is my intention to address this issue head on, with a board that is courageous enough to take action, and with the support of numerous local leaders and legends such as Earl Campbell, the Tyler Rose, Heisman Trophy winner, NFL great, successful business man, and probably the most notable graduate of John Tyler High School; and Kevin Eltife, former mayor of Tyler, Texas, State Senator, Chairman of the Board of Regents for the University of Texas System, and fellow Robert E. Lee High School graduate.
"These are just two on a very long list of local leaders who have voiced their support of addressing this issue.
"I’m also joined in support by board members Andy Bergfeld and Artis Newsome. Between the three of us we represent portions of North, Central, and South Tyler.
"This afternoon we’ll be calling for and posting notice of a special meeting of the board of trustees of Tyler ISD, with one agenda item: to discuss and take action on adjusting the names of both of our flagship high schools, Robert E. Lee and John Tyler.
"This meeting will be held Thursday evening and board members will have a chance to share their thoughts on this issue at that time.
"Objectivity is a word that must permeate our thought processes and decisions as a school board. If we consider one, we must consider both.
"Although Robert E. Lee High School has sparked the debate, and garnered much attention, if we apply the same set of criteria used to justify the consideration of changing it, we must also objectively apply the same criteria to John Tyler, who never contributed on a local level, but did contribute and serve on the congress of the confederacy, whose troops were commanded by Robert E. Lee.
"Let me be very clear to my community. The decision to address both high schools has everything to do with objectivity and unity, which is why I’m requesting a vote on both schools at the same time. Should a vote to change the names occur, we’ll then address the process of re-naming.
"Educating children in today’s environment is tough enough as it is. We have COVID-19 issues to navigate and impending budget cuts due to the depletion of revenue sources, not to mention several other societal issues that daily impact our ability to educate our children. In my opinion, it’s wise to eliminate hurdles where you can in order to more adequately serve our kids and community.
"It’s my hope that we can move forward, through, and from this issue in unison with a poised and rational demeanor, so we can turn our focus back to Successful Student Outcomes."