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Denton ISD officials expected to discuss facility naming policy at next board meeting

It’s been three weeks since the Denton school board voted to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary for longtime educator Alice Alexander. But some community members, elected officials and attorneys have voiced concern over the way the decision was made and the district could face legal action if the situation isn't remedied. 

The school board came out of closed session at a November meeting and voted unanimously on the change. There was no specific agenda item that referenced Lee Elementary, Alice Alexander or any renaming of a school facility. 

The district's attorney, Randy Stout, pointed to boilerplate language in the closed-session portion of the agenda: to deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline or dismissal of a public officer or employee.

Stout said that section of the Texas Open Meetings Act could extend to the name of an employee being used on a school building. Alexander taught in Denton schools for 45 years, but retired sometime in the 1970s. She died in 2007 at the age of 100.

"That's absolutely ridiculous," said Houston attorney Joseph Larsen when he heard Stout's reasoning. Larsen works with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes open government and First Amendment rights.

"That section refers to a current employee or somebody you're looking to hire," he added. "This is the furthest thing from a personnel matter."

Larsen also questioned why the issue was discussed in a closed session in the first place.

The Texas Open Meetings Act allows governmental bodies to meet in closed session to deliberate things like lawsuits or land deals. Larsen said the topic of renaming schools, especially ones named after Confederate generals, is an issue of high public interest and wouldn't meet the criteria for a closed meeting.

"Even if [the item] had been posted, it should've been discussed in open session," he said. "I can't think of an exception that would require a consultation with an attorney for something like this."

The Denton school board's next meeting is at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12. The meeting agenda should be posted by Friday on the school district's website, www.dentonisd.org. To avoid any legal action, the board could post a specific agenda item about the renaming and hold another vote to solidify it.

If not, Larsen said, the Denton County district attorney could pursue the case as an illegal closed meeting, a misdemeanor that carries potential fines or jail time. Community members could also sue the district and get an injunction to prevent the name change.

"They need to go back and do it right as quickly as possible," Larsen said. "It would probably be no harm, no foul."

Denton school board President Mia Price said she expects the board to revisit the issue at the next meeting. She also wants to review Denton ISD's current process for naming facilities, which take place consistently behind closed doors. (The district does allow individuals to submit nominations for school names year-round.)

"Transparency is very important to me," Price said. "If there's even a perception that we aren't being transparent, I want to address that."

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