The debate is over and the decision is reached. The School Board, after many months of meetings with the public and much spirited debates, along with countless e-mails, letters and discussions, finally decided that the new high school under construction would not carry the old building’s name with it. It was decided that instead, the name would be Westmoreland High School. It was a 3-2 split decision, but in the end Chairman Ralph Fallin, newly-minted Vice Chair Iris Lane, and Dr. Wallace’s votes for the new name settled the matter, but not before Sandra Ramsay and Kathy Lewis voiced their concerns, starting with the survey that was conducted online and garnered about 373 responses, and three more responses in the form of letters, for a total of 376.
“I focused a lot on the survey,” Ramsay explained to the other board members. “It was online for 136 days. I spent many hours putting it all together, and anybody that said any name like ‘Westmoreland’ or ‘Westmoreland County’ went into one category, anybody that said Washington & Lee went under that name, and anything else into ‘other.’”
By Ramsay’s interpretation of the data, 39.3% of the vote, or 148 responded in favor. Washington & Lee came out with 164, or 44%, and everything else clocked in at 64 or 17% of responses.
“This was, to me, the biggest source of communication with the community, and I think therefore that we need to honor their survey. I am for unifying our community, but I also think we have a right to follow through and be a voice for the community, and this is what they have said.
“I really think we need to stay with Washington & Lee,” she continued, “because if we do change the school name, I don’t see how we can if we don’t change Washington District, and that’s a whole lot of money to be spent on rebranding, and we barely had enough to get this school built. Can anybody give me a ball park estimate of how much that would cost? We’re talking logos, uniforms, colors, everything.”
The concern Ramsay laid down about costs was well-founded, given that it cost J.E.B. Stuart High up in Fairfax a bill of approximately $1 million to replace their rubber mats, stationary, shirts, athletic gear and more when they voted to change their name back in 2017. Robert E. Lee High School in Texas was even higher, with a new name coming in at approximately $1.8 million, while the full bill came in at an eye-popping $3.5 million in costs to the fine arts and athletics departments, signage and gym changes.
Kathy Lewis, meanwhile, pointed out that if Washington & Lee went, then Washington District Elementary might as well go too, and everything be wiped clean.
“Both would have to go so that we could start fresh, from Kindergarten all the way to the new high school,” she stated, “as well as all of the names being part of the generic ‘Westmoreland,’ which I’m not fond of since I don’t like generic names. It’s going to be my suggestion, if we go through with this, that the Eagles also be retired, so that everyone starts anew.”
Dr. Wallace brushed the concerns aside, stating, “Washington District is a completely separate issue, because the big motivation for most of the town halls was the offending name Robert E. Lee, since he fought for the Confederacy, and it becomes a hurtful name for some that attend since some of their ancestors may have been enslaved by proponents of the philosophies of the Confederacy. The old name is still going to be on the old building anyways.
“As far as the costs of re-branding, the new school was going to be painted and need a sign anyways,” he continued. “These are fixed costs that are irrelevant, not impacted by a name change since we’re building a new school. Stationary would be used up before we go to the new building, and uniforms wear out and need replacing at some point, so I don’t see it as being an excessive cost in rebranding.”
“I have to disagree,” Lewis retorted. “They’re not separate issues. The old school will not be called ‘W&L High School.’ I’m sure that it will be called something else, but I can’t see how anyone would allow the old school to retain the name by any means. And I also don’t understand how, if we’re removing ‘Washington & Lee,’ why we’re not removing ‘Washington District.’ I would think it would behoove us to seriously consider removing it to take away the name and start from the beginning.”
While Ramsay and Lewis read the survey one way, Fallin, Lane and Dr. Wallace read the results in a completely different manner, seeing it as 44% for Washington & Lee, and 56% for a new name.
“When I reviewed the data from the surveys, I had two groups,” Lane explained. “One was Washington & Lee, the other was anybody with a name besides Washington & Lee, which told me they wanted a new name. When read that way, it was clear that more people wanted it to be a different name than there were people who wanted it to stay ‘Washington & Lee High School.’ Also, when attending the town halls, the majority of the organizations and people representing the groups we invited also stated they wanted a new name.”
Lane also cited a demographic breakdown of the student population as per the Department of Education, with the school’s demographics coming down to 39.6% black, 6.8% mixed, 37.8% white, and 15% Hispanic.
“It shouldn’t be about race or ethnicity, but this does show the diversity of our schools,” she continued. “I think we have a really diverse student population. I went to Washington & Lee, and I loved it, but I don’t think the name reflects our population, and I think the new name should.”
Chairman Fallin was the last to chime in before the vote was conducted, stating “to me, the surveys were just some input, not the full input. I’ve learned so much from the town halls, I’ve heard many people tell me, ‘Two years ago, I’d have asked to keep it Washington & Lee, but today is different.’ Over the last year or two, I’ve had a lot of individuals talk to me personally about their preference, and received some emails. I’m in favor of doing things that will give us a unified county. I’ve reflected on all of this quite a bit, and I’m convinced this is the right thing to do.”
After the vote was done, Chairman Fallin concluded the matter with an eye towards working together, stating, “we have different opinions on our board, but we have a great board, and I know that every board member is going to work together to support this decision and do everything to make it work. Having different opinions while listening to each other is one of the things that makes us such a great board.”
The Chairman’s final remarks seemed to be both to the board and the virtual audience.
“Thank you all for sharing your opinions and the great discussions we’ve had. We’ll keep moving forward.”