When Our Leaders Fail to Lead
I sat in the Tyler ISD School Board meeting last night anticipating a vote and a decision that I would support–whatever the outcome–out of respect for the leadership and authority of the school board. I came away incredulous! The motion to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School and begin the new name selection process was followed by stony silence. The board president reminded the members that seconding a motion did not infer or require an affirmative vote. More silence from the dais and the crowd of approximately 100 citizens. The motion was allowed to die for lack of a second. What was going on? In the July board meeting, just two weeks previous, board members had expressed frustration with continued focus on the name change issue and rejected the ideas of more community input meetings or a subcommittee for further study. Instead, they urged an up or down vote on whether to change the name as a means to bring closure one way or another to the entire issue. I was not the only one bewildered after the board’s refusal to allow a vote in this special meeting called for that purpose. Though not the movie setting, “dazed and confused” would be an apt descriptor for many faces in the crowd.
Approximately a year ago after the incident surrounding the controversy of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, a grassroots effort focused on changing the name of the south Tyler Robert E. Lee High School sprouted and grew. Equally as quickly a counter group took root, and Tyler, once again was a divided community. More accurately the racial tensions that have long remained lumps under Tyler’s beautiful public carpet of roses and azaleas were exposed. The carpet was ripped up and the dust flew!
In September 2017 board members initially signaled support for a name change with one member asking, “Is it fair to make African-American students attend a school named for the leading figure of the Confederacy?” Another stated in reference to the name change, “This is not changing history, this is making a positive impact today,” and urged the board to “do the right thing. . . It’s time for a change.” So what happened? What changed in eleven months?
Unfortunately as the year progressed, the public and, I can only assume, the private discourse was not always civil and respectful. Dueling Facebook groups logged on and petitions swirled. Honestly, when I saw some of the posts, my heart broke and I thought, Oh, no, no! Let’s not go there! Attendance at school board meetings skyrocketed. Items regarding the name change issue were on the official board agenda four times during the past year. Approximately 150 to 200 citizens made public comments at these and other board meetings with the numbers for and against the change fairly equal. Needless to say, it was at times ugly.
Yes, the nature and tenor of the discourse changed. It became louder, more fractured, less civil, and at times plummeted to accusation and name-calling. Regrettably, some folks on both sides allowed their emotions and passions to cloud and disrupt their reason and respect. Interestingly, as the board members spoke moments prior to the “vote, but no vote,” their primary focus, with a couple of exceptions, was on the community. They expressed, sometimes loudly, their disapproval and disappointment in the process and chastised folks for the divisiveness, the disrespect, the lack of courtesy and civility. They argued that the name change issue was a political and social issue and not germane to the function of the board—to focus on successful student outcomes. They took offense to this issue “being forced upon the board” and “the predicament that we have been placed in.” They argued that a name change would be a betrayal of the taxpayers who approved a bond to construct and renovate John Tyler High School and Robert E. Lee High School and changing the name was equated to a “bait and switch” scheme. (Note: The actual proposition on the May 6, 2017 Official Ballot-Bond Election did not include the names of the two high schools.)
What I found even more interesting and unsettling was that again, with only a few exceptions, the board members did not talk about what they believed would be the impact of a name change or no name change on current or future students. Although they espoused their focus as a board was to work toward positive, successful student outcomes, I did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a negative/positive impact on student achievement because. . .” I also did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a positive/negative impact on our community because. . .” Logically, every issue before the board should be viewed through the lens of how will this impact student outcomes/achievement. How will it impact our community as a whole and thus our community of students? With few exceptions specific answers to these vital questions were not a large part of the board members’ discussion at this or any previous meeting to my knowledge.
Maybe, to the detriment of all, some in the community allowed their emotions to guide their discourse, and in the end, perhaps the majority of the board members did as well. As school board members and leaders of the community, they failed to lead. They failed to remain objectively focused on the issue—a school name change—and how that change would or would not impact student outcomes, now and in the future. Granted, it is a difficult, highly charged, emotional issue with prospects for a general consensus being very bleak even in the process of extended civil discourse. Surely, the board members knew this. Also, I would hope they knew when they ran for office that there would be times of difficult decisions, contentious personalities, unhappy people, and they could possibly, most probably, at some point be the target of someone’s ill-temper.
The community expected a vote. The board members had lead folks to believe that they wanted a vote, a decision. Why didn’t it happen? Why did our leaders fail to lead? I have my ideas, which are purely speculative and probably, for now, are best kept to myself. As I left the board meeting amidst the dazed and confused, I heard various descriptors–cowards, shameful, no moral courage, gutless. Well, I don’t know about all that. I do believe, in this instance they failed to rise above the fray, maintain their focus on the best possible student outcomes, measure the issue through that lens, and vote on a difficult issue. On this occasion, they failed to lead. One board member stated prior to the “vote, no vote” that no matter what the board had done up until this point this is how they’re going to be remembered. Unfortunately, I believe he is correct!
An Open Letter: Tyler ISD School Board (and Citizens)
Dear School Board Members:
I was glad to see the news that a vote on the school name change is on the agenda for the school board meeting on Monday, August 6. I realize this has been a very difficult and divisive issue for our community and to some extent the school board. I agree, it is time for the board to vote on the issue and for our community to commit to respectfully abide by the board’s decision.
Unfortunately, this is one of those situations fraught with highly charged emotions and opinions with folks unlikely to come to any general consensus even in the process of an extended civil discourse and dialogue. It truly saddens me that our community’s discourse on this issue was not always civil or respectful. Thus, you seven, as members of the school board, are tasked with making a decision which will have a significant and lasting impact on our students, both current and future, and on our community as a whole. I respect your leadership and your courage as you do this, knowing that whatever decision you make, there will be those who will not be pleased.
As you consider your individual decisions, I sincerely hope that you come to the conclusion that a name change, particularly the Robert E. Lee name, is in the overall best interest of our students and community. I believe a name change would:
- assure a school that the students could be proud of and want to attend, and ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement. This is our ultimate goal—student achievement.
- promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to the well being of all our students and excellence in their education.
- be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area.
In all honesty with you, I think it is unfortunate that General Lee’s name has become such a lightning rod for issues of race in our country, but it has and that is the reality in which we must live and make our decisions. In light of this reality I think it would be unwise to carry the Lee name forward into our new school. Let’s take advantage of our new school situation and move forward with “a brand new thing.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
I ask each of you to vote in favor of the name change. As leaders in our community, your making a unanimous vote would be a model of unity for our community and influential in promoting community healing and reconciliation. After a vote to change the name, it would be my hope that a diverse group of stakeholders—community members, school representatives, students, parents—would be tasked to come together and begin the process of new name selection and determining an appropriate means to remember and recognize the school’s history. . Perhaps this process can be the mechanism for community reconciliation—a coming together and discussing shared hopes and visions for our students, schools, and community. We have spent a year focusing on our disagreement, which never brings forth a solution. With your leadership, our community can turn its focus to the future and all the possibilities of this brand new thing.
Thank you for your service and dedication to excellence in education for all our Tyler students. I want you to know that I will respectfully abide by whatever decision the board makes on this issue and encourage others to do so. During my 38 years in education and counseling I always told my students that it was okay, and sometimes even understandable, if they did not like the rules or decisions made by their parents or teachers, and they were expected to respect the authority represented by their parents and teachers by abiding by the rules and decisions. I see this situation as somewhat similar. You, as the board, are the current elected leaders of our district and vested with the authority to make rules and decisions for the district. I hope and pray that once your decision is made Monday evening that all the good folks of Tyler ISD will respectfully accept your decision, come together, and continue to work toward providing our students with the excellent educational opportunities they deserve.
“We will honor creation and human life together, across religions, nations, and cultures, or we will perish together. Treat life as Sacred! This is God’s command—to all humanity. The response is up to all of us.”
From: The Sacredness of Human Life by David P. Gushee
REL Name Change – I Get it! (Updated)
Through these past months I have listened carefully to all those speaking and sharing their opinions and positions on the issue of changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. I wanted to hear what those opposing the change are saying and thinking. I wanted to hear what they are feeling. I wanted to hear from those in favor of the change. What are they feeling and what are their motives for change? I have stated earlier what my initial thoughts and feelings were on this issue, and I was struggling. I was not “on the bandwagon” for changing the name!
Through my personal processes of questioning and consideration, I have moved to a position supporting the name change. As I have listened to the speakers opposing the name change,I consistently hear arguments defending the traditions of REL High School and how important those traditions are to its alumni – in some cases two to three family generations of alumni. I hear defenses of the life, legacy, and character of General Robert E. Lee. I hear admonitions that we can’t erase or forget our history. And, I hear the often-used “slippery-slope” defense. “If we change Lee’s name, what’s next – John Tyler, the City of Tyler, Hubbard Middle School, etc.? Where does it stop?” Amidst all the words I hear feelings of loss, fear, and anger. And, you know what, I get that! I hear and understand those feelings.
For now, let’s consider the feelings of loss-an intense core emotion that can fuel fear and anger. Robert E. Lee High School has a storied history that has often been stellar even though dogged at times by the legacy and accouterments of its namesake.
But more importantly, tens of thousands of students have walked it corridors and filled its classrooms. They played on athletic teams, marched and performed with the band, sang in the choirs, participated on debate teams, performed in dramatic productions, danced with the drill team, cheered in the cheer squad, and so much more.They made friends and sometimes enemies. They excelled academically, and they sometimes faltered.
They made memories. Maybe that first kiss came while secreted in a hallway corner or leaning against a locker. Maybe that high school sweetheart is now one’s spouse. Who ever forgets the first Belles Dance, Junior-Senior Prom, or the excitement of Homecoming Week? Yes, Robert E Lee High School is a place that has molded and influenced so many young lives, and the traditions and stalwart school spirit lives on in each of these lives even if they are not so young anymore.
So I think I get it! I understand that sense of loss that might come with a name change. The sense of losing a place that holds memories and so much of what was our youth. I get it! I understand! I started my teaching career at REL. I have two sons who graduated from Lee. I have albums of photos and mementos recalling Belle Dances, band performances, choir concerts, and certificates of achievement. I get it! My question is — At this pivotal point in time, and given the current context of our school and community, can we acknowledge our feelings of loss, move through them, and focus on the future of our students, school, and community? What is best for the common good, today? What is best for our future tomorrow and in the years ahead.
REL High School is no longer about us, the middle-aged plus folks. We will always have our traditions and history with REL. It is true! We cannot erase our history. We carry it with us. Hopefully, we learn from it. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we don’t. We decide, individually, and subsequently corporately, what we do with our history and whether we remain steadfastly stuck in it or allow it to guide us into new eras, new beginnings, and new possibilities. Most histories I have read are written in chapters. What will be the next chapter for our school and our Tyler community?
Changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School could be like finishing a chapter in a good book. The information and events in this chapter are vital in giving context to what comes next. Hopefully, the reader is excited and eager to keep reading and discover what the next chapter holds. Or, we might want to think in terms of those inevitable “chapters of our lives.” We know them because we have lived them! Some of our life chapters are natural ends followed by new beginnings – high school graduation, college perhaps, entering the work force, career moves, getting married, having kids, the empty nest. It is my experience that coming to the close of a life chapter brings some natural feelings of loss and accompanying sorrow. Yet, I move to the next chapter with hope and anticipating the new.
In moving forward, it is the desire of my heart that all of us with meaningful ties to REL hold on to our personal memories and recall with fondness the traditions we enjoyed even while moving beyond them and focusing on our present and future young folks and our best hopes for our community. We are in a different time and place than we were in 1958. Robert E. Lee is a different school. Tyler is a different, growing, and diverse community. Can we focus on what is best for our future-for the school and our community? Can we feel our loss and move forward in support of our new school with a new name and all the new possibilities that brings to our community.
It is my hope and prayer moving forward that our sense of loss will be softened by the promise of a new beginning, a new era, a new chapter for our beloved school and our community.
Building Bridges-Making Peace
Quite good at building bridges, we are! Such marvels of engineering!
Gleaming steel, expansive cables, massive concrete
Carry burdens of rushing cars, trucks, trains, and even plodding feet
Over barriers of water-tumultuous and serene, abysmal chasms, plunging gorges.
Bridges conceived in survival, sometimes social, often economic.
Bridges born of intellect and ingenuity; completed in grit and determination.
We admire them, we dedicate them, we name them–
Brooklyn, Tower, Penang, Sydney Harbor, Golden Gate.
What bridges beckon us today to a renewed era of building?
Bridges to peace! Bridges more difficult, more complex perhaps, more urgent indeed!
Bridges of warm smiles, outreached hands, eyes that truly see, listening ears.
Bridges of understanding and compassionate hearts, minds guided by reason.
Bridges of kind deeds, gentle actions, firm commitments, and diligent compromise.
Bridges over barriers of nationalism, abysmal chasms of religion,
Plunging gorges of race, the waters of diverse cultures whether raging or serene.
Bridges to peace conceived in the roots of our humanity
Born of the kindred spirits of sacredness and dignity of every life.
Do we desire them, will we build them, dedicate them, name them –
Respect, Acceptance, Affirmation, Love?
We see our Muslim brothers, our African sisters, the fleeing Latino children,
The starving Sudanese, the terrorized Assyrians, our neighbors next door.
We look in the eyes. We hear the cries from the other side.
Eyes clouded with fear, sorrow, desperation, hopelessness, hate.
Cries filled with anguish, horror, hunger, grief, and anger.
We see and hear their hearts. We know and feel our own.
Let us heed the beckoning. Let us build bridges to peace.
Let us dedicate and name them: Respect, Acceptance, Affirmation, and Love.
Quite good at building bridges! Yes, we can be! Such marvels of our humanity!