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PAISD school names challenged

Public weighs in on district’s Confederate legacy

The Port Arthur Independent School District board of trustees welcomed two individuals with opposing views about two PAISD elementary schools named after Confederate leaders Thursday night, but Board President Thomas Kinlaw III notified both speakers their three-minute presentations could not be used as an interactive back-and-forth.

No questions would be answered, and no comments would be given, Kinlaw said Thursday night before giving the floor to Port Arthur natives Greg Richard and Linda Bargainer.

Richard started the one-sided discussion, using his self-identified “sermon” to continue a complaint he first voiced in February 2007 intended to rename of Robert E. Lee and Dick Dowling elementary schools.

“In 2007, you blew me off. But I appreciate your invitation today. I find it offensive as a taxpayer to have (a public school named after) a treasonous bigot who fought to keep people who look like you all in slavery,” Richard said Thursday, looking around at the school board — which, with the exception of Vice President Robert Reid, is composed fully of African Americans. “I urge you to consider that. It’s just common sense. It should have been done eight years ago when you built the new school.”

Richard first approached the district about renaming the schools after Robert E. Lee Elementary School was rebuilt. In his original request, dated Feb. 5, 2007, Richard asked the school board to consider renaming the schools “to something more suitable for this contemporary community.” His letter says, “Anything less by the district leadership is a classic example of black self-hate.”

Richard notified board members Thursday they should change the names of the schools or face being booted out of the board room in the next election cycle.

“It’s not a threat — it’s a promise. This will come back in your face if this does not change,” he said.

Bargainer took the microphone after Richard’s three minutes were up to defend the school names, specifically Dick Dowling Elementary School.

“There’s been so many things that have happened since slavery, and I’m sorry that happened 150 years ago. But those children don’t see color today. It’s parents that agitate each other,” Bargainer said. “Instead of using money to change the names of the schools, we could use it on the children and on teaching their parents English so they could get more involved in the district.

“We don’t need to be teaching kids about slavery. We need to work on our children. And if you want to talk about slavery, there’s different definitions we could talk about. My dad left school in the fifth grade to pick cotton to support his family. Do you know what he learned from that? Hard work.”

Bargainer said she had a “selfish reason” for not wanting to change the school names — the 1984 death of her daughter, who is memorialized on the front of Dick Dowling Elementary.

“People drive by and see that and recognize me or my daughter — or they’ll see it and start to ask, ‘Who was she?’ It’s a beautiful memorial, and I couldn’t bear to see it removed just to change the name of the school,” Bargainer said.

As Kinlaw promised at the beginning of the meeting, the board did not discuss renaming the schools Thursday. PAISD Superintendent Mark Porterie said the board members were happy to hear two sides of the issue Thursday, but if the school names are going to change, the board will need more of the community to step forward.

“It is the job of the board to listen,” Porterie said, “but the board’s role is to listen to the community — the entire community. We are happy these individuals came forward today, and we’d be happy to hear from many others if (renaming the two elementary schools) is something the community wants to pursue.

“What will happen now is our board members will discuss what they heard tonight amongst themselves, and if they decide to pursue this any further, they will bring it back up during another public meeting. That is the board’s job, and if the public wants to get more involved, they are welcome to bring their comments and concerns to the district and to the board.”

Twitter: @crhenderson90