Berkeley school board approves renaming of LeConte Elementary School

Xiaoye Yan/Staff

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The Berkeley Unified School District board unanimously approved a recommendation to rename LeConte Elementary School at its meeting Wednesday, after ongoing controversy surrounding the school’s namesake.

LeConte Elementary School was named after Joseph LeConte, a UC Berkeley geology, botany and natural sciences professor in the late 1800s. Along with his brother, LeConte owned more than 200 slaves, provided munitions for the Confederacy during the Civil War and frequently promoted theories of racial inferiority.

In May, the superintendent’s office received a petition signed by teachers and families from LeConte Elementary requesting that the district look into the appropriateness of the school’s name. At the meeting Wednesday, Superintendent Donald Evans provided the recommendation that the board approve the renaming of the school.

“I have the honor of watching our uniquely diverse community of parents and teachers work to support and embody a spirit of mutual cooperation and care, but all that we are trying to foster in our school is antithetical to what our school’s namesake, Joseph LeConte, believed in and promoted,” said LeConte PTA President Leah Martens during the meeting. “The children of LeConte deserve a school name they can take pride in.”

BUSD Director Karen Hemphill stated during the meeting that while she generally does not favor rushing to rename institutions, LeConte Elementary was a case in which the name no longer fit in the context of the changes occurring at the school.

“When it comes to this particular request to dename, I feel that it’s not just the current revisiting of some of the obsolete and hypocritical viewpoints that many of our founding fathers had, but we’re looking at a school that has really reinvented itself,” Hemphill said at the meeting. “It is now a Spanish immersion school and … the desire to change a name that is more in line with what the school’s mission is and philosophy is makes a lot of sense to me.”

The school must now undergo a process to determine a replacement name. A recommendation is expected to be brought to the board in April, and the approval of a new name is anticipated to come before the end of the 2017-18 school year.

Community members also spoke before the board during public comment regarding a California Public Records Act request by conservative group Judicial Watch. The group requested access to all documents and emails within the BUSD administration, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teachers and staff, with the words “Felarca,” “BAMN,” “Antifa” and “By All Means Necessary.” BUSD indicated in a statement Oct. 27 that it would be legally required to comply with the request.

To prevent BUSD from providing the documents, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teachers and staff members Yvette Felarca, Larry Stefl and Lori Nixon filed a lawsuit against BUSD and were granted a temporary restraining order by U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria.

“What I’m hoping and imploring this district to do is to support the people you represent,” said Paul Kealoha-Blake, chair of the Berkeley Mental Health Commission and supporter of Felarca, during the meeting. “I would like to hear you representing us and our rights and our fears.”

Sydney Fix is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydney_fix.