John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The Orleans Parish School Board approved a list of 20 school campuses to be renamed at its Thursday meeting — because they were found to be named for a slave owner, separatist or segregationist and must be renamed under a board policy passed last year. 

The approval did not come as a surprise. It followed a 6-1 vote in favor earlier this week by an OPSB committee that includes all board members. 

Still, some board members and members of the public took issue with two parts of the renaming process. Board member Carlos Zervigon brought up a public comment period on the renaming process — which is open until the end of the month — suggesting that some members of the public likely believed that a vote approving the list wouldn’t take place before public comments were closed. 

“Our school communities didn’t understand the nuance in that deadline,” Zervigon said. 

At a committee meeting earlier this week, OPSB member Ethan Ashley and other board members pushed back against that argument, noting the renaming process had been ongoing for months.

And several members of the public who submitted comments on the vote argued that some of the schools on the list have transcended their namesakes and assumed their own identity, such as McDonogh 35. The first high school for Black students in the city was named for philanthropist John McDonogh — a slave owner — but has been highly regarded for its academics and alumni. 

“It’s hard to talk about Black excellence in New Orleans without mentioning the name McDonogh 35,” Yvette Alexis told the board.

“There are countless names and achievements we can discuss about McDonogh 35. The people of McDonogh 35 have given the name a new meaning,” she said. “When people hear the name McDonogh 35, John McDonogh is the last thing they think of.”

McDonogh 35 students and alumni have also asked that the school building be taken off the list.

But board members argued the facility naming policy does not give them any flexibility. The new language explicitly states that the board is “fundamentally opposed to retaining names of school facilities named for persons who were slave owners, confederate officials and segregation supporters.”

“The policy was clear — we don’t really have a choice without changing the policy,” member Katie Baudouin said. 

The policy language was proposed in June of 2020, as a wave of protests swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin was convicted this week. 

But the policy only affects school buildings. The charter groups whose schools are located in the district-owned buildings can continue to operate under names they choose, including McDonogh 35 Senior High School, the name of the school that operates in the new McDonogh 35 building on Cadillac Street. The distinction frustrated some members of the public. 

The board voted 6-1, mirroring the outcome of the Tuesday committee meeting that advanced the recommendation. Board member Carlos Zervigon was again the lone dissenting vote. 

While the board was in executive session at its virtual meeting, some attendees spoke out in the Zoom meeting’s chat.

“I am a Lusher parent and very dismayed that the school has shown no signs of changing the name of the school, only the building,” Brooke Grant wrote in the chat. “And under the system that we have here in New Orleans, there is NOTHING we can do if the school board does not want to change that?”

“So Lusher keeps the name on the school program but the building name changes?? This is foolishness,” David Terrie wrote.

“These kids, white, black, whatever…DO NOT want the name of a white supremacist BRANDED across their backs, their chests not one more day,” Terrie wrote.

The same goes for teachers, Grant replied. “Some of which have made clear that they are leaving the school because of this. Our teachers should not have to walk through the doors or wear an ID tag with the name of a white supremacist on it.”

The board on Thursday also awarded a $1 million contract to the Center for Resilience, a non-profit that serves students in crisis. Earlier in the day, district officials successfully advocated for an additional $500,000 for the program from the New Orleans City Council, which can award special funds collected from Harrah’s Casino to education programs.

After the board’s 45-minute executive session, members also voted to “amend” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis’s performance goals for the year, but there was no public discussion of what those changes will be. District officials have not responded to a request for additional information. 

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...