Thursday, January 17, 2019

Dixie school board receives petitions, testimony for name change

Dixie school board receives petitions, testimony for name change

Marin Community Foundation to pick up cost of process, if approved


Dixie school board members listen to public comment Tuesday. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

By KERI BRENNER | | Marin Independent Journal
PUBLISHED: January 16, 2019 at 5:36 pm | UPDATED: January 17, 2019 at 6:39 am

Momentum in favor of changing the name of the Dixie School District edged forward this week as proponents delivered petitions for new names, offered two hours of emotional testimony to the board of trustees and announced that the Marin Community Foundation would pick up the tab.

Supporters, organized as “Change The Name,” say the time is right to offer children a “teachable moment” about how to have kindness and compassion for people of color or others who may be hurt or offended by the violence, slavery and racism evoked by the name Dixie’s ties to the Civil-War-era South.

“Taking a vote in a predominantly white community, resulting in keeping a name that, by definition, is racist doesn’t make any sense,” said Dixie school parent Lala Luciano, one of at least 20 speakers at Tuesday’s overflow board meeting at the Dixie district office in north San Rafael.

“White people, living in predominantly white communities, should not get to be the final arbiters of what affects people of color, what is or isn’t racism or how racism affects people of color,” Luciano said.

Dixie parent Lisa Pavlovsky urged the board to reflect that even though some residents may not have been bothered by the name Dixie for many years, that does not mean everyone feels that way.

“Just like we teach our kids to be upstanders for those who are being bullied or treated poorly, so should we do the same for our neighbors,” she said. “Just because we are not personally affected by something, does not mean we are outside agitators and have no right to fight for change.”

Parent Nathan Hunt echoed that thought.

“No one in this room chose the name Dixie,” he said. “But by not changing the name, we’re choosing it all over again.”

Supporters also announced Tuesday that the Marin Community Foundation has agreed to cover administrative costs for the name change. According to the board agenda from Tuesday night, the initial estimate for the change is $18,283. That includes redoing signs on buses and buildings, and replacing wording on letterhead, the district website, logo, email and business cards.

“My offer is this: using private philanthropic funds, MCF is prepared to offset these costs for the district,” Tiburon resident Noah Griffin read to the board from a letter by Thomas Peters, CEO of the Marin Community Foundation. “It is our hope that by doing so, the discussion can be focused on the more substantive and poignant merits of the proposal before this board.”

Opponents, organized as the “We Are Dixie” group, deliberately did not attend Tuesday’s board meeting, saying in a written statement they didn’t want to be part of the “media circus, or to add to the divisiveness and bickering in the community.” They say their position against the name change is not due to racism, pointing out the name Dixie is not considered offensive elsewhere “within the country, especially since 56,000 people — 7,400 of whom are African American — have the first name Dixie and there are currently 21 cities in the U.S. with the name Dixie.

“We also request that the legacy of the Dixie School District not be wiped away without listening to the generations that built it,” they said in a statement. The group opposes the petition process and insists the district continue instead with plans for a 2020 advisory ballot measure on the issue, a measure approved by the district board last month.

“We Are Dixie believes that only a democratic vote by Dixie district residents and taxpayers will settle this issue, and there are members of the community who have already offered to fund (the ballot measure election in 2020),” the group said in a written statement Wednesday. “We acknowledge that there are differences of opinion within the community, but We Are Dixie believes that not a single child will receive any tangible benefit from a name change. However, our children are quickly learning that if you stir up enough emotion, facts and logic will not matter.”

Although numerous residents, including Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly, have called for a “healthy discussion” as the best way to heal the bitterly divided and polarized community, We Are Dixie said “a vote is necessary because … Change The Name advocates have needlessly divided our community and poisoned the well for civil discourse.”

The district, with about 14,000 residents, is roughly 97 percent white. The district has three elementary schools and one middle school. At least three previous efforts to change the name have been made since 1989 — all of which were turned down. The current fourth attempt, however, comes at a historic time when cities, schools and groups across the nation are taking down Confederate statues, monuments and flags and striking the song “Dixie” from the event program playbooks.

“The name change is something that’s going to stick with these kids forever, a lesson they will carry with them when daughters become congresswomen, when sons become doctors, when these kids become teachers,” said Patrick Nissim, who graduated from Dixie schools and who still lives in the district. “They can carry that lesson forward and tell their kids how proud they were to be part of the new school district that was named.”

Earlier Tuesday, supporters delivered petitions with 13 proposed names to Superintendent Jason Yamashiro. The board is expected to review the petitions, confirm they have the required 15 valid signatures each, and then schedule a public hearing and a vote within 40 days. The names, all to be followed by “Elementary School District,” were: Terra Linda, Big Rock, Miwok, Live Oak, Terrawood Valley, Live Oak Valley, Mary Dixie, Oak Valley, Miwok Hills, Skywalker, Miller Creek, John Muir and Lucas Valley.

“We are in the process of validating the signatures and names on the petitions,” Board President Brad Honsberger said in an email Wednesday. “There will be a public hearing at our next board meeting on Feb. 12. This will be followed by a board discussion and a vote on each of the petitions filed.”

Peters, CEO of Marin Community Foundation and a 25-year Dixie district resident, said in a Dec. 10 letter to Honsberger that the board should “seize the moment of opportunity” to change the name.

“The plain fact is that in today’s American cultural and linguistic context, the predominant connotations of the word Dixie evoke not only rebellion and treason, but pain and terror,” he says in the letter. “No amount of local interpretation of diary entries, historical footnotes, genealogical searches or nuances of irony or humor can override this reality.”

The “titles and symbols of the Confederacy stand, first and foremost, for humiliation, degradation and threat,” he added.

Peters also told the board that “by selecting a more appropriate and inclusive name, (they) would send a powerful and poignant message both to the whole community and to (the district’s) young students, now and into the future.”

San Rafael Councilman John Gamblin, a Dixie district resident, urged the board, even while moving forward, to “take a slight step back” to try to bring the community together in some fashion before rushing ahead to approve a new name.

“This is a train that’s rolling,” he told the board. “I don’t envy any of you with this decision, because it’s huge. You will make some people happy and make other people not happy. … I encourage you to focus on the process and take a slight step back to heal what is happening in our community.”

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