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Lee Elementary name change decided behind closed doors

It was 10:30 p.m. Tuesday when Denton ISD board member Dorothy Martinez made a motion to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School for longtime Denton educator Alice Alexander. The school board had just returned from closed session and voted unanimously in front of  four people to approve the measure. 

The controversy surrounding Confederate imagery has made local and national headlines in the wake of deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some school districts, like Dallas ISD and North East ISD in San Antonio, have voted to change the names of schools named after Confederate soldiers. But Denton ISD's situation is different: All of the board's discussion was held behind closed doors.

The Texas Open Meetings Act allows governmental bodies to meet in closed session to deliberate things like pending litigation or land deals. When the school board posted Tuesday night's meeting agenda, there was no mention of Lee Elementary or Alice Alexander on the three-page document, only a closed-meeting item "to deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of a public officer or employee."

Randy Stout, the school district's attorney, said an evaluation of an employee could extend to the name of that employee being used on a school building. Alexander taught in Denton schools for 45 years, but passed away in 2007 at 100 years old.

"Those discussions are primarily about what effect the name will have on students," Stout said, adding that he believed those conversations should be held behind closed doors.

Prior to Tuesday's decision, two people asked board members to consider renaming Lee Elementary, during the public comment portion at an October meeting. Board President Mia Price said at the time the issue was on the board's radar, but didn't give a specific timeline for any future action.

Currently, the district has a policy that allows residents to submit names year-round for existing and future facilities. Sometimes, individuals or developers who donate land to the district have the final say-so on what the school is named, as is the case for Denton ISD's newest Union Park Elementary. More often than not, though, board members gather in closed session to decide what name its schools will use.

Price said Alexander's name had been submitted multiple times and board members had been looking to name a school after her for several years. However, to name a school after a person means the board needs to examine that person's background and contributions to the district, Price said  Wednesday.

"It wouldn't be an appropriate thing to vet a person in public," she said. "People have had ample opportunity to address this in a public forum. We don't want to shut the public out. We try to be as transparent as possible."

She said the board was aware of the controversy surrounding Robert E. Lee Elementary, but added that members were more focused on naming a facility to honor Alexander.

"We did not want the controversy to detract from the education of the students at Lee," Price said. "We were looking for a school [to name after Alexander] and it seemed like the logical choice."

Other districts and local governments have taken a different approach to the issue of Confederate names and monuments.

When Dallas ISD discussed renaming four schools that bore the names of Confederate generals, trustees included the item several times on meeting agendas to let the public know they were eyeing a change. Board members in North East ISD in San Antonio asked the public to submit name suggestions following an August decision made in open session to change the name of its Robert E. Lee school.

Even locally, Denton County commissioners have sat through hours of public testimony regarding a Confederate soldier monument on the downtown Denton Square. The commissioners have established a citizen advisory committee to craft solutions for the monument, though that committee will meet behind closed doors. Once the committee comes up with recommendations, the commissioners will give final approval in open session.

County Commissioner Hugh Coleman, who is also a lawyer, said he was surprised by Denton ISD's vague language on its meeting agenda.

"It would certainly make you question when the decision was made," he said. "The open meetings act is made so that a normal, regular person can understand what's being discussed in a meeting. I would think you would have an item referencing 'changing the name of Lee Elementary.' Then when they went into executive session,  you would know what they were talking about."

"This is a pretty hot topic and I think the public would want to know about it."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.