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EDUCATION

Survey respondents: Don't change Auburn High School's name

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AHS renaming survey

The overwhelming response from a community survey, left, and a student survey was "no" to the Auburn Enlarged City School District's question about whether residents support changing the name of Auburn High School.

Two surveys conducted last month by the Auburn Enlarged City School District on the possibility of renaming the high school both yielded results overwhelmingly in favor of not making any changes.

Results provided to The Citizen in response to a Freedom of Information Law request showed that 78.5% of 1,928 community respondents answered “no” to the question “Are you in favor of changing the name of the high school?” An even larger proportion of student responses — 82.3% of 718 responses — also said they opposed any new name.

The surveys were conducted as part of the district's process for considering a name change request brought forward in January by a group of high school students, who asked that the board rename the school to honor Harriet Tubman, the historic abolitionist who lived much of her adult life in Auburn.

The district's board of education had established a committee of community volunteers that was going to come up with a recommendation on how to proceed, with the board making a decision in early June. But on May 25, the board voted to pause the process, citing the divisions it was causing in the community and problems with the consideration process.

Auburn High School exterior

Auburn High School

The community survey went live online on May 20, and results were collected through May 31. The district this week also provided the raw data from that survey in response to The Citizen's FOIL request, with redactions to protect respondents' privacy.

An analysis of that data showed two major themes from explanations respondents could provide for being against a renaming. One was the importance of the name Auburn High School for maintaining a sense of community and history. The other related to concerns about the potential cost of any name change.

Of the responses that chose “no” to any renaming, 31.1% cited one or more of the following terms in the explanation field: “cost,” “expense” and “money.” The district has not provided the public with any estimates on what the name change would cost; the school board had asked the administration to research that question before the early June vote, but then the board has not revisited the issue since the May 25 pause vote.

Another 34.1% cited the words “Auburn” and “community” without any reference to the financial concerns. An example of a typical response from that group of explanations: “My parents went to Auburn High School, I went to Auburn High School and I want my children to attend Auburn High School. I believe that Auburn High School is a representation of the community."

Among the yes votes from the community survey, the most popular choice among those respondents was to rename the school Harriet Tubman High School, with 91.8% choosing that as one of their top three choices.

Joseph Sheppard, the current school board president who is seeking to retain that leadership post in the district's new fiscal year, said in an interview with The Citizen on Wednesday that since the board resolution in May that paused the renaming consideration, the district is no longer working on the issue and the board's strategic planning committee hasn't been discussing it.

"We've stopped any discussion on it," he said.

Sheppard said last week that he intends to pursue being board president for the next school year at the 2021-22 re-organization meeting July 1. On Wednesday, he said he doesn't currently have an expectation of the issue coming up again if he remains president, but did note that any board member could bring it back.

The only recent related work that has been done on the issue is the district reached out to the Erie 1 BOCES for guidance to develop a new policy on the naming and renaming of any district buildings in order to amend the district's current policy.

The pause was a way for the district to develop a plan to establish strong polices on the process of potentially renaming facilities and "looking at ways to develop community dialogue on matters of building names on matters of diversity, on matters of district equity, on ways that the district can receive better communication from our community, from our constituents," Sheppard said. 

If these renaming issues were to be brought up again, he added, he would want a stronger process to be in place. Sheppard said the current policy is "just a shell of something, so we were kind of developing a process as we were going." He added that the district was making changes based on the community input the board was receiving.

Sheppard also said he would want an independent entity to be involved that could dive into these issues with no personal attachments or biases, "to focus the conversation and work with the community and work with the board." 

"If this comes forward again, I want to have a solid process in place that involves an outside group monitoring and guiding discussion," he said.

In assessing the results of the district's surveys on the issue, Sheppard said the 2,600 survey responses is a small portion the district's overall population. 

"I think the next step should be to have a greater discussion about the issue and to generate focus groups, and to just have a larger, broader discussion," he said. "I think that's the biggest part, is to expand the discussion."

Regarding respondents concerns about potential renaming costs, Sheppard said the district had Lisa Green, its business official, look into its documentation on costs back when East Middle School and West Middle School were merged to form Auburn Junior High School several years ago, as well as when the district's administration building was named after Tubman. But records of those expenses aren't required to be kept beyond seven years, so the district could not find detailed documentation.

Green did reach out to other school comparable districts that did building name changes. The "big ballpark" estimate, Sheppard continued, for a building name change for a small city school district of Auburn's size range from about $750,000 to $1.5 million.

Sheppard said he believes $1.5 million is "a pretty big expense," but noted it's possible those costs could be covered by Auburn's state building aid. At this point, though, the district has not looked into detailed cost figures.

Auburn Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo on Wednesday said the district was in the process of starting to explore cost estimates specific to Auburn High School when the board voted to pause the undertaking.

Some residents at board meetings in recent months have insisted that any name change be voted on through a public referendum. Pirozzolo said he thinks that could be possible.

"I would imagine it could be an option, if that's what's written into the policy and the policy allows for it, that's one thing that we will have to see and check up with our counsel but I do believe that that could be done," he said.

Pirozzolo also addressed the survey results, thanking the community members and students who gave their feedback. "The community is a important part of this process," he said.

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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Education and City Reporter

Hello, my name is Kelly Rocheleau, and I cover the education and city beats for The Citizen and auburnpub.com. I've been writing for the paper since December 2016.

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