Virginia school board votes to restore Confederate names to two schools

School board members in Virginia’s Shenandoah County voted early Friday to restore the names of two schools that previously honored Confederate leaders – nearly four years after a decision was made to change them.

The 5-1 vote the school board decided to reinstate the names Stonewall Jackson High School and Ashby Lee Elementary School. The names honor Confederate Gens. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Turner Ashby.

The schools have been called Mountain View High School and Honey Run Elementary School since July 2021, according to board documents.

Prior to the vote, several board members criticized how the names were previously changed. Board member Thomas Streett, who voted in favor of restoring the names, described it as a “knee-jerk reaction” that had a lack of involvement from the community.

Board member Gloria E. Carlineo told CNN on Friday that she hopes it was clear that their decision had nothing to do with race. It was based on doing things the right way, she said, and shows that “wrongful actions by governmental systems can and should be rectified” to restore citizens’ trust in authorities.

“The same system of government, rules, and policies that rectified the evils of slavery and segregation through legal means, is the same system of government that we should rely on without cutting corners and ignoring the people,” Carlineo said.

But for Sarah Kohrs, a mother of two students attending schools in the district, the decision is sending “a terrible message” to the world.

“We deplore the board’s decision to regress and ‘honor’ Civil War figures that consciously betrayed the United States and were proponents of slavery and segregation. This decision seems more about vengeance, control, and hatred than heritage or due process,” said Kohrs, who is also part of local group opposed to the change called Claim the Names.

In the years since the 2020 killing of George Floyd, the names of Confederate leaders, Confederate monuments and symbols have been removed from numerous schools, universities, military facilities and even the Washington National Cathedral’s windows.

The district in Virginia could be the first school district in the country to reverse course, according to an analysis by Education Week.

In the hours of public comment that began Thursday evening, students, parents and county residents spoke on both sides of the issue.

“I ask that when you cast your vote, you remember that Stonewall Jackson and others fighting on the side of the Confederacy in this area were intent on protecting the land, the buildings and the lives of those under attack,” said a woman urging the board to restore the Confederate names. “Preservation is the focus of those wishing to restore the names.”

Gene Kilby, the last surviving son of James Wilson Kilby, a Virginia civil rights activist who helped desegregate schools in Virginia, criticized the move to keep the names.

“Why are we here tonight to go back to a time in history that was very cruel, where hatred and racism continued throughout this county and throughout the United States?” Kilby said. “Is this the type of legacy that you want to put in Shenandoah County’s public school buildings?”

Changes could be a six-figure expense

Nearly four years ago, the Shenandoah County School Board moved to rename the schools as part of a resolution condemning racism and affirming the district’s “commitment to an inclusive school environment,” according to school board documents.

But the composition of the school board is different now than it was during the 2020 decision – all six seats are held by different people.

The current board took the first steps to restore the Confederate-tied names last month after a group of residents named The Coalition for Better Schools asked them to consider restoring the original school names. Since then, members discussed the issue in a work session, heard public comments and scheduled this week’s vote.

In an April 22 work session meeting, the six board members criticized how the names were changed in 2020, saying it was wrongly done, was rushed and lacked public input. Board member Carlineo said in the work session that it also “eroded” confidence in the school board.

Carlineo told CNN her vote would be based on how the names were changed in 2020. A decision that, she said, took place within days and with Covid-19 restrictions that limited the community’s input.

“So, for me, the main consideration is whether we, as a democratic nation of laws, will choose to ignore a decision made by a governmental body that exploited the tragedy of COVID or will rectify a wrongful action that has deeply divided our community. I choose the latter,” Carlineo told CNN before Thursday’s meeting.

CNN reached out to the other five board members for comment ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

Jessica Sager, a spokeswoman for Shenandoah County Public Schools, had said the district has not yet obtained quotes on the estimated cost of a name change. In 2021, the district estimated it would spend more than $304,000 in costs related to changing the two school names and a middle school mascot, according to district documents.

Those costs were related to uniforms and equipment for athletic teams, resurfacing of a gym floor, signage in buildings and scoreboards, among other items, former Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Johnston told board members during a meeting last year.

The motion approved Thursday says private donations would be used for the restoration of the school names and not by “the school system or government tax funds, though the SCPS will oversee disbursements relating to restoration costs,” according to the meeting’s agenda.

Some residents refuse to move on, parent says

Parents and residents expressed their opposition and support to restoring the school names. In an April 3 letter to the school board, the Coalition for Better Schools said it believed “that revisiting this decision is essential to honor our community’s heritage and respect the wishes of the majority.”

The group told CNN before the vote took place that it “has full confidence in our current school board to listen to the voice of its constituents and follow the wishes of the majority in the county. Unfortunately, the previous school board did not take those things into consideration. We believe that ‘We the People’ is an important part of our Constitution and should be upheld at every level of our government.”

Sarah Kohrs, the mother of two students attending schools in the district, is among several parents and residents who said ahead of the vote that they were opposed to restoring the Confederacy-tied names and were frustrated it was being considered.

“It’s very frustrating to know that here we are four years after that, and we still have a small portion of the community that just refuses to move on,” Kohrs told CNN.

She said attention should be focused on what students want and need to succeed, like repairing leaking roofs, a sound system for track meets, or having enough varsity letters with the current school names.

“We still don’t even have all of our athletic equipment from the name change in 2020. We’re still utilizing old hurdles, sometimes that have the name of Stonewall on them,” Kohrs told CNN.

Shenandoah County Public Schools serves more than 5,600 students, and about 75% are White, 18% Hispanic and 3% Black, data from the state’s department education shows.

CNN’s Paradise Afshar and Jillian Sykes contributed to this report.

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