An effort demanding J.E.B. Stuart High School in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Falls Church, Va., change its name has been plagued with clandestine conversations and deceptive tactics, according to emails obtained through Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
Political correctness advocates behind the movement to remove the Confederate general’s name from the school worked in concert with with the Fairfax County School Board to downplay the estimated $1 million price tag associated with the name change.
Public records, which were obtained by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a D.C.-based government watchdog and taxpayer advocacy group, also indicate a desire to hold discussions about the matter in secret.
The issue began in 2015, when a small group of J.E.B. Stuart students appealed to school and community leaders to remove the name of the famed Confederate general from the school. The effort gained national attention after prominent Stuart alumni, actress Julianne Moore and TV producer Bruce Cohen, started an online petition stating the school’s name represents “a history of racism.”
The petition requests J.E.B. Stuart High School be renamed to Thurgood Marshall High School to honor the Supreme Court Justice and civil rights leader who resided in Falls Church.
To date, the star-studded petition has garnered more than 35,000 signatures.
Advocates of the change argue the school’s name is rooted a protest against federally mandated integration efforts taking place at the time of the building’s construction in 1958. Opponents of the name change claim local leaders were simply honoring the legendary cavalry leader who once headquartered his regiment about a mile from where the school now stands.
In response to the requests to rename the school, the school board created a working group in 2016 to study the matter. According to Kathy Partlow, the executive administrative assistant to school board chair Sandy Evans, the panel is still examining the issue.
Emails show that Evans worked heavily with a small group of local activists to coordinate the name change movement over the past two years. These activists include NAACP leaders George Alber, Ralph Cooper and Stephen Spitz, and George Waters, a Democratic activist in Northern Virginia.
Alber, in particular, spearheaded the advocacy campaign. Evans and school board member Pat Hynes used him as a conduit to generate opinion content for the student newspaper and Evans sent him drafts of the board’s resolution concerning creating a working group to examine the possible name change.
“We definitely want to discuss [the resolution] with you before you publish it,” Alber told Evans in a July 12, 2016, email after Evans sent him the proposed resolution.
Hynes pleased for stronger language in the resolution in order to placate the NAACP. In a July 21, 2016, email to Evans and fellow Democratic board member Karen Corbett Sanders, Haynes wrote, “Advocates like the NAACP and others who support the name change are important constituents for us and they are disappointed in the current language.”
School board members later became more careful about openly discussing the contentious issue in emails, apparently in order to prevent the interactions from becoming subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
After board member Megan O. McLaughlin emailed to ask why the estimated cost of a proposal for a contractor to facilitate the name-change working group could ultimately cost taxpayers as much as $100,000, Hynes told board members not to discuss the proposal via email.
“I would prefer that individual board members who have follow-up questions take them off line,” Hynes wrote on Oct. 6, 2016. “Opinions – eg whether the board punted to staff (we did) or whether we agree with staff’s approach – should not be discussed by board members by email.”
David Williams, the president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, the organization that unearthed the correspondence. is disturbed by Hynes’ emails. “It is shocking that an elected government official would try to steer conversations away from accountability and towards secrecy. It’s something you would expect in North Korea, not Falls Church, Virginia.”
Neither Evans nor Hynes responded to requests for comment.
The price tag
Changing the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School comes with substantial price tag for Fairfax County taxpayers and school donors.
Administrators estimate the name change will cost approximately $1 million to fund tasks such as designing new logos, updating signage, replacing athletic and band uniforms, resurfacing basketball courts and ordering new letterhead.
Campbell Palmer, president of the J.E.B. Stuart Athletic Boosters Club, worried that school board members might not be entirely forthcoming about the cost associated with the potential name change.
“Please do not downplay the costs,” Palmer wrote to board members. “[T]he costs of renaming the school are fixed and absolute, it will be at a minimum $750,000, and more than likely over $1,000,000.”
Palmer also pointed out that, in addition to the cost to taxpayers and donors, the name change would also be an expense for parents and students. “Every student will be expected to purchase new spirit wear…as well as fatigues for PE, a direct cost to every parent of a student within the school,” he wrote in a July 22, 2016, email to the board.
According to Palmer, the expenses associated with the name change would threaten athletic teams by capturing donations that would have otherwise gone to sports teams.
“If you vote to change the name of the school, please be ready to support the name change either fiscally or by volunteering to conduct extensive fundraising efforts: efforts I fear will impact both Crew fundraising as well as Athletic Booster fundraising due to the over-saturation of asking the same donors to provide sizable donations to a single school,” wrote Palmer.
Board members have expressed a desire, given shrinking school budgets, to ask the community for help in the costs of a name change.
Waters, the Democratic activist, hopes that Bruce Cohen and Juliann Moore will fund the name change.
There is no indication that either Cohen or Moore are aware of such a plan.
“Maybe we could get our rich Hollywood petition creators to right [sic] a few large checks,” Waters wrote to Evans on Sept. 3, 2015.
Waters reiterated his hope that a celebrity would foot the bill for the name change in a May 21, 2016, email exchange with Evans. “If these wealthy folks in Hollywood decided to foot the bill is that OK with [Fairfax County Public Schools]. Is there any reg that might get in the way?”
In one email, the progressive activist said he discovered online that Cohen “has a net worth value of a cool $20 million.” Waters also wrote to Cohen’s parents, George and Phyllis Cohen, asking them to forward a message to their son to do some Hollywood fundraising.
Evans, the school board chair, told Waters the costs has become the biggest issue facing the name change, and agree that Cohen could be a solution to the problem.
The working group was originally scheduled to provide recommendations regarding the name change in March. Those recommendations have been delayed by the resignation of Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent Karen Garza.
Correction: George Alber’s last name has been corrected.