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Little support on school board for renaming ‘Stonewall Jackson’ schools

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Ryan Sawyers

Ryan Sawyers

Prince William County School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers’ proposal to rename Stonewall Middle and Stonewall Jackson High School in the wake of the deadly Charlottesville protests appears to have won little support -- so far -- from his fellow school board members.

The school board has not yet met since Sawyers announced on Aug. 16 his proposal “to work with the school board, citizens and local community groups” to rename the two schools and launched a GoFundMe page to raise private donations to the cover the estimated $750,000 of doing so. The fund had raised about $2,800 by Tuesday morning.

Renaming the schools will require a series of school board votes, the first of which would be to initiate the process, according to school division policy. But it’s not clear Sawyers has the votes to clear that first hurdle, since no other board members were willing to lend their support to the renamings this week.

Democrats Justin Wilk (Potomac) and Loree Williams (Woodbridge) declined to share an opinion, while Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) was traveling out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Diane Raulston (Neabsco) said she has reservations about the legality of the private fund-raising effort and the cost to the school division if it falls short.

“I don’t believe we have that kind of money to go on a campaign of: ‘Lets’ get rid of the bad guys,’” Raulston said of the proposed renamings. “We have to spend our money directly on the children.”

Raulston further said she wasn’t willing, yet, to “either rule in or rule out” a name change, saying the discussion is premature.

“I think it’s kind of early in the game considering school hasn’t started yet and we’re doing other things to prepare,” Raulston said. “I think we have bigger fish to fry at the moment, like opening schools.”

Two of the three Republicans on the school board – Willie Deutsch (Coles) and acting board member Shawn Brann (Brentsville) – criticized Sawyers’ proposal as both divisive and self-serving. In statements and on Facebook, both accused Sawyers of acting with political motivation. School board member Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville) did not respond to requests for comment.

Deutsch lobbed the harshest blows, saying Sawyers is “explicitly working to capitalize on a tragedy to divide the county for short-term political gain,” an apparent reference to Sawyers run for the Democratic nomination to unseat Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, in 2018.

“Time, money and staff and school board energy are finite resources,” Deutsch wrote. “As a board, we need to be focused on improving educational opportunities for all students. Once again, Chairman Sawyers is going to divide the county to capitalize on a tragedy.”

In an interview, Deutsch said he would not rule out a name change but said it should be led by the students and the communities surrounding both schools and perhaps delayed until tensions cool.

“There are a lot of people who are very upset with the way President Trump handled Charlottesville but still feel this isn’t something the community should touch right now,” Deutsch said.

“You’ve got a situation where school is opening and … there might be protests in front of the school,” he added. “That’s incredibly disruptive.”

There’s been no indication the proposal to rename the schools has yet resulted in any planned protests. Deutsch acknowledged as much but said the possibility seemed plausible given recent events.

On Facebook, Brann thanked constituents for offering their input on the name change but did not give his own opinion. Instead, he emphasized finding “common ground” while leveling jabs at Sawyers’ approach.

“This is not the time to divide. This is not the time to call others names, simply because they think differently than you on the political spectrum,” he wrote. “This is not the time to raise funds for a political campaign.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, and Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, also weighed in with criticisms. Stewart, who has made the defense of Confederate statues the focus of his recent political campaigns, called it “political correctness gone mad,” while Lawson said she is “disgusted” with both Stewart’s and Sawyer’s “divisive campaign rhetoric.”

Sawyers, however, pushed back on such criticisms Monday, saying he, too, intends to take things slowly to avoid the problems like those that arose when the school board made a quick decision in the spring of 2016 to rename the former Mills Godwin Middle School for George M. Hampton, a local retired African-American U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and community philanthropist. Godwin, a former Virginia governor, was an early proponent of Virginia’s “massive resistance” campaign to avoid public school desegregation.

Sawyers said the renaming will not be on school board’s agenda for their first meeting of the new year, set for Wednesday, Sept. 6, but may come up as part of the discussion. Sawyers said the board would likely appoint a committee to study the name change, if board members agree to move forward, but said there is no timeline for doing so.

“Right now, it’s in the discussion phase,” Sawyers said. “It’s intentionally open-ended. … What I did with my announcement was two things. One was to address the financial aspect of the renaming and the other was to say, ‘Let’s do something entirely differently than we did the Godwin vote. Let’s talk about this as a community.’”

Sawyers said the discussion about the schools’ names did not start with him but rather originated as early as the 1990s. He said he believes the schools were initially named as part of a political agenda, at the time, to resist school desegregation, which was opposed in parts of Virginia for years. Some Virginia school divisions closed their public schools to avoid desegregating. That did not occur in Prince William County, however, where schools began desegregating in 1964.

That was the same year, however, the original Stonewall Jackson High School opened to students. The school was in the building that now houses Stonewall Middle.

Stonewall Jackson High School retained its name when it moved to a new and larger building on Rixlew Lane in 1973. Both schools are in Manassas and are now majority Hispanic, with Stonewall Middle comprised of 56 percent Hispanic students and 15 percent black and white, while Stonewall Jackson High School’s students are 53 percent Hispanic, 19 percent white and 17 percent black.

Sawyers said he is opposed to schools named for Confederate figures not because they themselves may have owned slaves but because they fought against the U.S. to allow slavery to continue.

“Look, slavery is awful in a million different ways … but one of the things slavery did was to keep people from getting an education, and someone shouldn’t have a school named after him for fighting for that,” Sawyers said. “The fact is, it does matter… Learning from history is one thing. Celebrating the bad parts of our history is something else.”

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was a Confederate general who earned his nickname during the First Battle of Manassas in 1861 when another Confederate general remarked that Jackson’s troops stood firm amid a heavy Union assault. Ordering his own troops into formation, Brig. Gen. Barnard Elliott Bee, Jr. shouted: "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” according to historian and author James I. Robertson.

There are six schools in Virginia named for Jackson, including one elementary school, three middle schools and two high schools, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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