Committees work to advance name change options for Santa Rosa school
Tony Hawk Elementary School?
That’s just one of 16 names still under consideration if Santa Rosa City Schools moves forward with a plan to rebrand James Monroe Elementary School in northwest Santa Rosa.
The community group charged with steering the discussion of a potential name change for James Monroe Elementary School in Santa Rosa on Thursday night whittled down a list of 27 suggested names for the campus on Marlow Road. George Washington didn’t make the cut, but the famed professional skateboarder did, as well as the less specific Happy Elementary School.
Thursday’s discussion came after Santa Rosa City Schools board members voted in July to start the process of examining the name, as well as that of Luther Burbank Elementary School, in light of a broader push to rid civic buildings of names associated with racism and white supremacy.
School board member Omar Medina, who led the renaming push, advocated strongly for Monroe to be renamed in honor of George Ortiz, a civil rights leader and patron of local Latino empowerment. Ortiz died in January 2020 at the age of 85.
The 16 names, many of which were suggested by current Monroe students, will be listed in a community survey that will be open for ranked voting from Saturday to April 16, according to Monroe Principal Katheryne Stoural. The committee will reconvene April 20 to examine the results and craft a presentation to give to the Santa Rosa City Schools board of trustees at their April 28 meeting. The school board has the final say in any name change.
Included in the list that will be voted on by the community are Tony Hawk Elementary School, Charles M. Schulz Elementary School, George Ortiz Elementary School, Paulin Creek Elementary School, Rev. James Coffee Elementary School, Dolores Huerta Elementary School and Monroe Elementary School.
That the name Monroe appears as an option even amid the push for a change is because many community historians contend the school was not named after the slaveholding president James Monroe but after a pioneer family long located in the area. In fact, the name “James” was added to the school only in the early 1980s by then school board member Cynthia Zieber who also pushed for “Abraham” to be added to Lincoln Elementary School and “John C.” added to Fremont Elementary School.
In a 1996 column in The Press Democrat, historian Gaye LeBaron wrote that Zieber acknowledged her move might have been historically inaccurate.
“She worries a little about that James Monroe Elementary name since the school was annexed to the Santa Rosa district as the only school in what was known as the Monroe District, with no indication that President Monroe had anything to do with the name,” LeBaron wrote.
The Monroe District, still identified as such on area fire maps and evacuation charts, was annexed to Santa Rosa City Schools in 1950.
“The school was not named for President James Monroe,” said Karen Stone, committee member and member of the Historical Society of Santa Rosa. “It honors a pioneer family. So any name changes erases that history.”
But committee member and Monroe fifth grade teacher Meryl Blomseth expressed concern that for some students, the association with a slave-owning president is already established.
“The time and place in history that we are at in our society, we have a choice, we have a choice to hear the people that have been crying out, that have been losing their lives and say ’We stand with you,’” she said.
To simply remove “James” from the marquee would not feel like a strong enough step for many, she said.
“The mark is still there. The wound from having the name of our school be James Monroe for however long it was still permeates in the community for our Black and brown students,” she said.
Stakeholders at Luther Burbank Elementary School were given a similar charge after school board trustee Alegría De La Cruz suggested changing the name to Dolores Huerta Elementary School.
Burbank’s committee, whose work is already complete, put out a survey for suggestions, but drew just five: Luther Burbank Elementary School, Burbank Elementary School, Santa Rosa Elementary School, South A Street School and A Street Academy. All five were put to a vote among students, staff and parents, said Ross Hause, a veteran Burbank teacher and a committee member.
From approximately 350 votes, keeping Luther Burbank Elementary School was the clear winner, Hause said.
“It was through the roof,” he said.
Hause, a 22-year veteran at the school who was the Sonoma County Office of Education Teacher of the Year this year, said many parents felt blindsided by any effort to change the name, especially when the school community had been in distance learning for more than a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“A lot of parents have been upset and frustrated, like ’They are doing this to our kids,’“ he said. ”Almost like it’s an affront.“
But the process drew criticism from at least one community member who said he was removed from a Burbank naming committee Zoom meeting last month. Invited to speak on the issue, treasurer of the Sonoma County Historical Society Mike Von der Porten said he gave a short presentation but then was removed from the online meeting. He has filed a formal complaint with the district.
“If there is truly a problem let’s address it, let’s just do it in public,” he said. “That was very concerning to me.”
Von der Porten is now a member of the Monroe name committee.
Luther Burbank Principal Debi Cardozo did not return calls for comment, but in an emailed response, Assistant Superintendent Anna Guzman said the district is examining its process.
“The ad hoc committee’s intention was to conduct a thorough and fair process for the possible renaming of Luther Burbank Elementary,” Guzman said in a written statement. “The district is consulting with legal counsel to ensure the process was conducted in accordance with the law and if it is found that the process was done incorrectly, we will rectify the situation.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.