The debate over what to do with the schools, statues, monuments, and flags that pay tribute to the icons of the Confederacy has been ongoing, but a turning point came in June 2015, when a white man opened fire in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people. Amazon, Walmart, and eBay stopped selling Confederate flags and merchandise emblazoned with the image. Governors in Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland announced plans to stop issuing state license plates with the flag on it, and the statue of Jefferson Davis came down at the University of Texas–Austin.
Houston Independent School District, meanwhile, voted to rename seven schools—four high schools and three middle schools—named after Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, Stonewall Jackson, John Reagan, Richard Dowling, Sidney Lanier, and Jefferson Davis. The decision was made in May, and the schools were renamed after people like teacher Margaret Long Wisdom and community leader Yolanda Black Navarro.
Many expressed disapproval when the decision was announced. And now that the new names are in place, there’s new criticism: namely, that the whole process was too expensive.
A cash-strapped Texas school district where teachers turn to the web to raise money for basic supplies incurred an unexpected expense this year: $1.2 million to change the names of eight schools that previously honored Confederate leaders. […]
“We have a school district that is broke — without libraries and in desperate need of repair — yet we’re going to spend $1.2 million to re-name these schools?” said Wayne Dolcefino, president of a communications firm hired by parents and families opposed to the re-naming. “At the end of the day, if we can’t figure out that every penny we have should be spent to prepare our children for the future rather than litigating what people did 150 years ago . . . we’re in trouble.”
The cost of rebranding the schools comes in at $1,256,197, according to Fox, and includes changing the athletics and band uniforms, repainting, creating new plaques, and more.
That sounds like a lot of money—and it isn’t cheap—but the full context of the figure is useful to consider. In June, Houston ISD approved a budget of $1.8 billion, which means that the cost of renaming and rebranding the schools amounts to 0.067 percent of the budget. A million dollars is still a million dollars, but it’s also more like a rounding error, in the context of the sums that HISD spends each year, than it is a substantial portion of funding.
Some of the criticism of the spending sounds convenient, in other words. Wayne Dolcefino, in his quote above, objects not just to the expenditure, but to “litigating what people did 150 years ago.” That echoes the objections made back in May, when a lawyer who threatened to sue the school complained that the district “cherry picked” the schools to be renamed, “from schools named after Confederate leadership to mere participants” who fought on the side of the Confederacy, a reference to the renaming of Sidney Lanier Middle School.
Sidney Lanier Middle School—which was named after a young Confederate soldier who is mostly remembered for his post-war poetry—was renamed Bob Lanier Middle School, for one of the softer re-brands one can imagine, honoring instead Houston’s mayor in the mid-nineties. That suggests that the cherries the district picked were, in fact, ultimately about the Confederacy.
There might be a discussion worth having about whether every single person who wore Confederate grey during the war should be removed from the list of figures who can receive tributes like buildings named in their honor—though after 150 years of buildings named after unabashed Confederate leaders, that discussion could see solid points raised on both sides. Either way, the budgetary issue is only part of what seems to upset people.
The politics of HISD are complicated, though. People were similarly incensed at the $250,000 the school district spent in 2014 to rename school mascots like “Redskins,” “Indians,” “Warriors,” and “Rebels” in favor of names without offensive or racially charged implications. Meanwhile, Texas law requires the school district to send $162 million to the state, where it’s redistributed to schools in areas with lower property values.
All of which indicates that the primary financial challenges faced by HISD are not the splashy $1.2 million figure for the renamed schools. It’s sad anytime teachers have to turn to friends and family to buy classroom necessities, and it does raise questions about our priorities—but it’s strange, given the size of HISD’s budget, to contrast the independent fundraising teachers are doing with the cost of renaming schools.