Despite ‘racial backlash,’ Sitka school board reaffirms decision to rename Baranof Elementary

Baranof Elementary School in Sitka. (KCAW file photo)

The Sitka School Board is not backing away from its decision to ask the Sitka Tribe of Alaska to help rename Baranof Elementary School, despite some public opposition.

Board members last week decided to stick with their original plan of identifying a “significant local cultural educator” to name the school for rather than bow to public pressure that struck some board members as racist.

The Sitka School Board first discussed the Baranof Elementary School name change on Jan. 6, and after extensive public testimony and lengthy deliberation, decided to ask the Sitka Tribe of Alaska for help.

At the time, it wasn’t really a question of whether or not to change the name, but who to name it for. After considering several possibilities — including naming the school after something other than a person — consensus settled on a “significant local cultural educator,” of whom there are many in Sitka’s rich cultural tradition.

Pushback came right away, through social media (including KCAW’s Facebook post of the story) and emails to school board members. Board president Amy Morrison thought the board should revisit the issue, and she put it on the February agenda for another round of public process.

“It is no reaction to any social media,” said Morrison. “I didn’t even know that existed. I should know better, but I stay away from that. It wasn’t a reaction to anything other than a few people who said ‘I wish you wouldn’t have been so specific,’ so I wanted to have the conversation again.”

But even with this new opening for public participation, no one from the public stepped forward to advocate for a different approach. Back in January, board member Eric Van Cise floated the idea keeping all possibilities open when choosing a new name for the school, but in the end saw that there was more support for a cultural educator and voted with the majority. Now, Van Cise was concerned about setting a precedent in backtracking a decision made in open public process under a “barrage” of after-the-fact comments and emails.

“Much to the distress of some of the people who have contacted me,” he said, “I am in the camp of keeping it as we agreed — it was a unanimous decision — I laid out what I thought might be an option, but in the end it didn’t get selected and I’m okay with that.”

Van Cise said he was saddened to see the polarization in the community around the issue, in social media and in email. Board member Blossom Teal-Olsen said this was apparent to her as well.

“Not all of it was horrible,” said Teal-Olsen, “but enough was said to make me see clearly the lines within the community.”

Teal-Olsen said that it was important for the school board to be accommodating to the public, but it had made a choice to specify a significant local cultural educator at the last meeting, and she said it was “a healthy specific, an honorable specific.” She felt that backing down or modifying its ask to the Tribe would make the board look indecisive, or worse.

“There is a very dangerous undertone of racial backlash of our decision,” said Teal-Olsen.

The board took testimony from three members of the public, all of whom supported the board’s original decision to seek help from the Tribe in identifying a significant local cultural educator to honor by renaming Baranof Elementary School. No further action was taken, and the matter will go to the tribal government as proposed.

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