The Albemarle County School Board approved Superintendent Matt Haas’ recommendation to change the name of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School to Ivy Elementary at the board’s January 12 meeting. Karen Waters, the school division’s director of community education who served as project manager for the name review committee, said during the meeting that “While we recognize that no one is perfect, we were not able to align the name … with the [division’s] values based on the information that was garnered from the committee’s research as well as my own.”
Though the School Board vote to implement the change was unanimous, the 12-member name advisory committee itself was strongly divided, and several committee members have characterized the division’s handling of the process as “disingenuous” and its final decision “unrepresentative.” “There has been a lack of trust with both the committee and the community members in this process, with evidence of manipulation and a lack of transparency,” said committee member Brandon Lindsey during the meeting’s public comment period.
Though Lindsey told the board that committee members were “appalled” by Waters’ treatment of them during their service, and that nine of the twelve members were “manipulated to achieve a desired end state,” no School Board member inquired about his comments or asked Waters follow-up questions about the deliberation and voting processes. Meriwether Lewis School (MLS) is the fifth county school to be renamed out of eight reviews over the last four years, with six more reviews yet to be conducted.
Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) has a policy for the renaming of a school facility that includes instructions for the name review committee. The committee’s tasks are straightforward:
- send out an initial survey to elicit potential school names, including retaining the original school name, and briefly describe the namesake’s contributions and attributes;
- hold a public meeting to obtain public comments on any of the suggested names;
- select five semi-final names;
- send out a second survey asking for community preferences on those names;
- hold a second public meeting for any further public comment;
- narrow the list to three names and, if the original name is on the list, conduct research on that person’s life and whether their conduct exemplifies the School Board’s values;
- considering all the information gathered, make a final selection of a name to recommend to the Superintendent, who then recommends a name to the School Board.
The policy states that “If the Committee is unable to make a final recommendation, the Superintendent shall select the final name to be submitted to the School Board from the three final naming candidates.”
Waters served as the non-voting project manager for the MLS name review, a support role external to the committee. “The role is primarily to help provide guidance, and to make sure that the committee has all the information that they need so that they’re able to adhere to the policy, and to help them with their timetable and things of that nature,” said Waters. “Their meetings were closed, so I was available by phone if they had questions.”
The committee sent out its first and second surveys on October 24 and November 14, and held two public meetings on November 9 and November 29. Per the policy, they narrowed its list to three names and researched Lewis’s life, consulting books, historical documents, and videos, and compiled what members learned into a shared Google document.
Seth Lovell, a committee member and parent of Meriwether Lewis students, described the process as keenly focused on community sentiment. “The Superintendent’s staff really pushed the idea that we had to initiate and put together these surveys and encourage people to take them. It was all about the surveys and the public forum, and so our process and many of our conversations were wrapped up in that.”
The two community surveys showed that 94% of polled respondents knew for whom the school was named or were familiar with his life and career, and 85% selected Meriwether Lewis as their first choice for the school name, with over 400 constituents responding to each survey. Of the 25 emails the committee received and the various comments from members of the public who spoke at the two forums, none were in favor of changing the name. A further school-wide survey of MLS students showed the name Meriwether Lewis Elementary was preferred by 160 out of 321 students, twice as many as the 77 who voted for second-place Ivy Elementary.
“The committee had very little opportunity to have meaningful conversations, so when we got to the point where they wanted us to make a recommendation, we recommended keeping the name,” said Lovell. He said that the committee checked with Waters as to whether the vote had to be unanimous, and she said it did not. On December 1, the committee voted nine to three to keep the Meriwether Lewis name, and forwarded that recommendation to Waters, assuming it would be sent to the Superintendent as prescribed by the renaming policy. (See above image of the committee’s prepared recommendation slide.)
Instead of sending the committee’s decision on, Waters held it and conducted her own research. “After the committee completed its work, I was compiling a report of their work,” she said. “As I looked through their research information, I came across some things that made my eyebrows rise. In checking the references, I came across some information that was not quite so flattering [to Lewis].” That information, rather than the committee’s research, became the basis for Waters’ report to the division.
The MLS naming decision was to be announced at the December 8 School Board meeting, but the meeting came and went with no announcement, and committee members asked what was going on. “We asked to see the presentation that was going to be given to the School Board, and when they sent us the draft, we were shocked,” said Charles Timko, a MLS community member serving on the committee. “It did not contain the majority of the information that we spent a lot of time researching. Instead, what was included was completely unrepresentative of our work, very biased and one-sided, making Lewis seem like a tyrant or a monster.”
The report highlighted Lewis’ 1795 court-martial for drunkenness (for which he was acquitted), his family’s wealth and ownership of enslaved persons, an outstanding debt he owed upon his death, and a quote from a UVA historian stating that Lewis and Clark statues are “monuments to white supremacy.” The report left out most of the details of Lewis’ life, such as the government offices he held, his relationships with indigenous Native American tribes, and the Corps of Discovery expedition for which he is most well-known.
Waters said her interpretation of the policy was that “if we don’t have a unanimous vote, then we need three names [to send to the Superintendent].” But the policy’s language makes no mention of unanimity and requires only a recommendation, which had been provided. Waters said she saw the committee’s recommendation as insufficient.
“I guess the question is, in interpreting the policy, what constitutes agreement?” she said. “And when you have a committee and you have three people disagree, then you don’t really have agreement, and so then there’s not agreement on one name.” Waters said that “three names weren’t given, so we had to reconvene in order to get two additional name suggestions.”
The committee was then called to attend a mandatory in-person meeting, though such a meeting was outside the provisions of the renaming policy. Waters and Superintendent Haas, along with Deputy Superintendent Daphne Keiser, were present at the meeting despite the fact that the committee would be asked to re-vote, and past meetings had been closed per division policy. At least four committee members were employed by the school system, and the administrators all held director-level positions above them.
Members said they were first shown a video TED-talk about “the power of stories” and asked how it made them feel. Waters then gave a lengthy speech about her own personal story and presented a slideshow about Lewis’s life, which members said portrayed him in an entirely negative light. Finally, Keiser, who was not introduced, read the school division’s anti-racism policy aloud to the committee.
Lindsey says that he and others on the committee were taken aback by the division’s tactics and felt they were being lectured to. “It was clear that the vote didn’t go the way they wanted,” he said. “We received a block of ‘re-training’ on diversity and anti-racism, and then were immediately told to re-vote. They basically tried to shame us into changing our vote without any opportunity to reconvene as a committee to discuss what we’d heard.”
The meeting, scheduled for one hour, stretched past two. Committee members were given blank ballots and told to re-vote, but one member left the meeting and another refused. With the administrators still present, three members switched their vote to support changing the name, and the committee was instructed to vote again on three names to be forwarded to the Superintendent.
“It was a sham,” said Timko. “Here you are, trapped in a meeting with people who are basically strong-arming you to ‘correct’ [your vote]. It was crystal clear that the intention was always to change the school name, [so much so that] they had to change procedure and bully us into it. It was upsetting to watch people being treated with such contempt by public officials.”
Waters said she was merely passing on supplementary information. “The purpose of that last meeting was to have them understand what some of the other additional research was presenting, and to give them another opportunity to be able to vote and perhaps offer additional names,” said Waters.
“We did feel it was necessary for the committee to have an understanding of the anti-racism policy, because part of our research did uncover that Meriwether Lewis came from a family that enslaved individuals, and for many in the community, that’s sort of a nonstarter in terms of whether or not that individual would fit into the value that we described as equity in our school policy,” said Waters. “But there are many areas in which Meriwether Lewis didn’t fit the rubric besides equity. He had no family to speak of but what he was born into, he didn’t have children. He was a very transient individual. It was widely accepted and publicized that he had a number of health issues.”
The Gazette reached out to six other members of the name review committee for their perspective on the renaming process, and each declined, did not respond, or would not speak on the record. The division’s communications director, Phil Giaramita, did not make Superintendent Haas available for comment.
MLS principal and committee member Jennifer Underwood said, “The name Ivy Elementary School recognizes how important the community around us always will be to the success of our students. Moving forward, I am eager to build on this partnership, including finding new ways for our parents and our neighbors to be involved in our work.” When asked about the concerns raised by the parents and community members on the committee, she said she had “nothing to add.”
Lovell said the experience has left him questioning division leadership. “As a parent with children in the schools, we’ve had a very positive experience,” he said. “The administration of Meriwether Lewis is phenomenal and the teachers have been wonderful. But what’s disappointing for me is that I now really question the larger school district and its leadership, and honestly, I have some concerns about the School Board as well.”
Though Lovell had spoken at length to his district’s School Board representative, Graham Paige, about his concerns before the School Board meeting, Paige did not bring up those concerns to his fellow board members during the meeting. “Why did none of the School Board members raise the question of why there was not a single representative from Meriwether Lewis Elementary School [at the meeting], as there has been in other renaming announcements?” said Lovell.
Reflecting on the process, Lovell wishes there had been more substantive and interactive discussion about the name change throughout the committee’s tenure, as well as better transparency from the division. “It’s clear that the Superintendent’s office had a very strong opinion about the history of Meriwether Lewis and about how having a school named Meriwether Lewis stood in opposition to their anti-racism policy,” said Lovell. “So, if they were going to essentially tell us, ‘No, that’s not the right answer,’ then I wish they would have said that from the start.”
“The [renaming] process is disingenuous to the community that it is supposed to serve,” said Timko. “It signals to those who spoke at the meetings and to the hundreds that completed the surveys that their opinions mean nothing. It demeans the good intentions of committee members by treating them as props. Ultimately, when the organizers realized they weren’t getting their preferred outcome, they abused their position of power. It is truly unfortunate that the voices of the community we were tasked to represent were silenced and discarded so callously.”
At the School Board meeting where the name change was announced, several suggestions were made by both Waters and board members to “tweak” the name review policy going forward. Waters suggested that votes must be unanimous or the Superintendent will make the decision, that there be one committee to handle the remaining six reviews, and that research on the namesake’s life be compiled in advance by division staff and given to the committee up front, along with anti-racism information.
Board member Kate Acuff suggested that no description of the namesake be given on the first community survey, and Ellen Osborne said the policy needed to be clear that the board preferred place, theme, or value names. While the board and Haas seemed perplexed as to why survey respondents said they preferred “place” names for schools but then later voted to keep school namesakes, none of them noted that “person” is not offered as an option on the survey question.
“Having something named after a person would be the exception, the rare exception,” said Osborne, who suggested changing the policy “so that people who are on these committees don’t assume that keeping the name is the default choice.”
The county namesake schools still to be reviewed are Agnor-Hurt, Stone-Robinson, Baker-Butler, Walton, Burley, and Henley.