On September 29, 2021

School district renaming policy is a ‘lightning rod’

By Curt Peterson

Windsor Central Unified Union School District (WCUUSD) board member Ben Ford, chair of the New Build Committee overseeing a proposed $74 million-plus project to build a new middle/high school in Woodstock, outlined a proposal for fundraising at the March 29 board meeting. One item has set off some powerful reactions.

Naming new facilities, projects, events and programs can be an effective way to raise funds from major donors, Ford said. He listed examples such as, “the football field and the Yoh Theater.”

He said his committee had asked Lou Piconi, chair of the policies committee, to include a “naming policy” in regards to overall fundraising.

During the Sept. 20 board review of the currently proposed naming policy, parent Jason Drebitko wrote in a chat message: “[Ford’s] comment became a lightning rod for the issue.”

While Ford’s reference to James T. McLaughlin Athletic Field, named for the beloved football coach, and the Yoh Theater, named for Robert Yoh, may have been just examples of facilities that could be renamed to honor community heroes and/or donors, and not as specific renaming targets for the New Build fund, that is not how the remark was perceived.

Dean Corkum created a petition, titled Leave Legacy Naming at WUHS Alone, urging the board to preserve existing legacies, including the football field and theater, as well as Frates Field, named for field hockey coach Yvonne Frates; Daily Gym, honoring coach Robert Daily; and the Teagle Library, named for Rhoda Teagle.

As of Sept. 28, 901 individuals have signed the petition.

Objectors say that years of personal sacrifice and service to the schools and the community will be demeaned and erased by someone merely “writing a big check.”

At the April 5 board meeting, Corkum and another activist, Maura Tynes, asked members to insert a clause in the policy-in-process that would exclude currently-named facilities or programs from those offered for naming rights.

Tynes, a ’94 WUHS graduate, veteran educator and school district administrator, has participated in several build projects, including a $250 million campus in Massachusetts. She told the Mountain Times similar strains on the community-school board relationship occur every time.

“In my experience, collaboration can result in policy language acceptable to all parties,” Tynes said. “The proposed naming policy lacks the perspective of community feedback.”

Bob Hager of the Woodstock Alumni Association demanded on Sept. 20 that alums be consulted about any proposed renaming ideas.

Board member Gwen Hagenbarth sympathized with the anti-renaming group. In its latest iteration, if a facility is renamed, “the previous naming will be commemorated on the school with a plaque or appropriate memorial.” Hagenbarth suggested the plaque be used to commemorate the new donor instead.

“It sends the wrong message to the students,” she said, “many of whom are on free or reduced meal status.”

Piconi said he believes the proposed wording protects the interests of both existing honorees and those who resist renaming for any reason.

The policy, which has to be presented to the board for discussion and approval, states: “The District welcomes the naming of facilities, programs and endowed funds … It is the intent of this policy that past legacy dedications will be honored.

“The board recognizes that conditions may occur where the renaming of such building sites, and/or facilities may be appropriate or necessary,” and, “Nothing within this policy precludes further naming within facilities, spaces, endowments or programs of those facilities, spaces, endowments or programs which are named.”

The latter would allow the seats, stage or lobby of the Yoh Theater, for example, to be named for someone else without changing the name of the facility.

Tynes said she has pointed out that at least some named facilities will be gone with construction of the new building, yet this fact is not mentioned in the naming policy.

The fundraising work group and the district superintendent together would submit any naming recommendation to the board, including a comparison pitting the existing honorees’ contributions against the value to the district of replacing the name. A public hearing and comments period will be scheduled 30 days hence, and if 60% of the board approves, the renaming will occur.

Despite heightened passions, both Drebitko and Piconi said the renaming controversy is probably a non-issue. “It’s highly unlikely the topic will ever come up when raising money for the [new building],” Drebitko said.

Piconi agreed, adding, “I don’t think this board wants to name anything.”

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