WJCC School Board votes to begin Rawls Byrd name change process

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The Williamsburg-James City County School Board voted 6-0, with one abstention, Tuesday night to begin the process of changing the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School. But there was disagreement among board members as to how quickly they should proceed.

Rawls Byrd was the superintendent of WJCC Schools from 1928 to 1964 and was at the helm when the Williamsburg and James City County school divisions merged. But some former students consider Byrd a criminal for keeping local schools segregated for 10 years after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which declared racial segregation unconstitutional.

Clarence Wilson, president of the York-James City-Williamsburg chapter of the NAACP, advocates for changing the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School during the May 24 WJCC School Board meeting. (Staff photo by Kirsten Petersen)
Clarence Wilson, president of the York-James City-Williamsburg chapter of the NAACP, advocates for changing the name of Rawls Byrd Elementary School during Tuesday’s WJCC School Board meeting. (Staff photo by Kirsten Petersen)

The elementary school named for Byrd, located at 112 Laurel Lane, opened in 1965. Today the school’s student body is 16 percent African American and 43 percent non-white, according to enrollment data from the Virginia Department of Education.

School board members were asked Tuesday to consider two options in response to repeated requests from former students and community members — either change the name of the school without a policy for naming schools in place or write a policy before considering a name change.

Neither option was chosen Tuesday. Instead, the board discussed options ranging from creating a hybrid of the two proposals to committing to changing the name without surveying community members before the decision.

Interim board member Mary Minor (Powhatan) moved to change the name, arguing that it’s within the school board’s authority to do so. Community residents could be surveyed about possible alternate names at a later date, she said.

Parliamentarian Jim Beers (Roberts) urged the board to approve Minor’s motion, arguing that it would send an important message to the community.

“I think it’s really important not to delay on letting the public know, officially, that we very much support the changing of that name,” Beers said. “I think it’s appropriate for a statement.”

Board member Julie Hummel (City of Williamsburg) agreed, noting that community members still could share their thoughts about the decision as well as submit their ideas for a new name for the school.

“The decision (will have) been made, and then it’s just a matter of what’s the best timing for everyone,” Hummel said. “We’ll work those details out.”

However, some board members didn’t want to commit to changing the school name before seeing the results of a community survey.

Vice Chairwoman Kyra Cook (City of Williamsburg) asked for the motion to be amended to say the board would begin a process to change the name, rather than say the board intends to rename it.

“I think if we’re going to seek input on potential names, it would be valuable to seek input on people’s thoughts on whether to change (the name) or why change (the name),” Cook said. “I am in favor because I don’t wish to honor that particular time in our history. (But) I think it’s incumbent upon us to at least seek input.”

Board member Sandy Young (Berkeley) and Chairman Jim Kelly (Jamestown) said they want a survey conducted before the board acts, with Kelly noting that some of his constituents have said they don’t want the school to be renamed.

Board member Holly Taylor (Stonehouse) said the community is particularly concerned about the costs associated with a name change. The school division likely would have to spend more than $8,500 to replace signs and other items bearing the Rawls Byrd name.

But Kelly said he doesn’t think cost will be an issue.

“I’m not concerned about finding money in the budget,” he said. “I’m concerned about not getting public input.”

In abstaining from Tuesday’s vote, Kelly said the board is moving too quickly.

“I just think that we get public input on decisions of gravity, and on this one the board acts in haste without properly crafting the motion,” he said. “Personally, I believe we should change the name, but the process we’re following is not appropriate.”

Superintendent Steven Constantino also supported changing the school’s name, but urged the board to consider the ramifications of committing to a name change without a plan in place. He asked board members to consider how Rawls Byrd students might react if they first heard about the name change in the news media.

Edith “Cookie” Heard, a leading advocate for the name change, said it seemed school board members were “torturing themselves” during Tuesday’s discussion.

Lafayette Jones, the advocate who started the campaign for the name change, said the decision should have been a simple one.

“We can provide them everything they need to get the job done. We’ve done the research for them,” Jones said, noting that he has collected petitions signed by community members in support of changing the school name, with some even offering suggestions for a new name.

Three people offered public comment about the changing the name Tuesday night, including Clarence Wilson, president of the York-James City-Williamsburg chapter of the NAACP.

“This is the time to act decisively and put this issue to rest,” Wilson said. “You made a great step in listening to the voices of the community who have so passionately stated the case for change and I hope a positive resolution is at hand.”

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