Americans tend to trust their local governments above all others. A September, 2016, survey by Gallup showed that “Americans who trust” local governments to solve problems stood at 71% compared with 61% who trust their state governments. Fold these data into the 17% approval rating for Congress and local government emerges as the last bastion of open, effective governance in the United States.
Unfortunately, a growing number of local governments are squandering their reputations among taxpayers as a debate over Confederate names and statues accelerates. Be it New Orleans, Richmond, Virginia or even Arizona, decisions on these burgeoning controversies over Civil War history are invariably cloaked in varying degrees of opacity.
One such episode attracting national scrutiny involves the Fairfax County, Virginia, school board and the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church. The debate is whether Stuart’s name should be removed from the school. A West Point graduate who served with the United States Army, Stuart sided with his home state of Virginia during the Civil War and joined the Confederate Army in 1861, earning renown as a cavalry general. He died of combat wounds before the end of the Civil War.
Fast forward to 2015, when actress Julianne Moore claimed Stuart’s name on the school promoted racism and slavery, and she began agitating from her perch in Hollywood to change the school’s name. Thus began years of discussion over the fate of the school’s name, a discussion which has not yet been settled.
Unfortunately, the school board is operating in the shadows with secret communications while it holds hearings at which activists intimidate large segments of the community to the extent that many refuse to participate and exercise their rights to free speech.
People can have honest differences of opinion on issues like this but it is truly disheartening to see the downward spiral of the discussion from thoughtful discourse into an organized intimidation campaign. Opponents of Stuart’s name on the school are so strident, they have resorted to slanderous name calling and threats of violence that have become so pervasive, local police have been positioned at hearings to keep the peace.
Aside from the airbrushing of history by removing Stuart’s name from the school, the change will be expensive, with some estimates reaching $1 million or more. Many taxpayers would prefer to see that million dollars used for something more constructive. Whether it’s books, band instruments, athletic equipment or most anything else, it’s pretty easy to find better uses for that tax money than trying to obliterate this part of history in Fairfax County.
Concerns about these costs were revealed only when secret emails were discovered and showed a level of coordination between some school board members and activists trying to change the name. This coordination was hidden until a Freedom of Information Act request exposed them.
When the school board was confronted with these and other disclosures, particularly those involving the exorbitant cost of changing the name, it issued a statement saying it plans to, “explore public and private partnerships to finance any name changes as well as examine ways to prevent any added burden to the school’s booster club, the Parent, Teacher, and Student Association and the school administration.”
The school board was scheduled to decide the matter in late June but delayed action until late July, raising even more questions about the honesty of the process. While this delay suggests the board is actually listening to taxpayers who don’t want to bear the expense of changing the school’s name, there also are concerns that putting-off the decision signals an effort to continue agitating for the change.
We’re seeing similar episodes around the country as people try to dismantle American history regarding the Civil War. The issue of J.E.B. Stuart’s name on a school building is but a microcosm of what is increasingly happening on a broader scale. Elected officials — even school board members — are responsible for ensuring that issues are fairly and openly discussed. Anything less is a betrayal of their office and the people they represent.
These issues should be honestly discussed and, when appropriate, the history that is associated with them should be placed in context. It should be done with civility and respect, not with the heavy-handed secrecy and violence-inspired intimidation we’re seeing today in Fairfax County and elsewhere.