CARY — It looks less likely that the next round of new Wake County schools will bear the names of people or municipalities.
The Wake school board will have to come up with names for 16 new schools following last month’s passage of an $810 million school construction bond issue. But during a board committee meeting Wednesday, several board members said they want to avoid using names of towns or people because of the potential controversy attached to those options.
“I think it would be wise for us to avoid that direct kind of a municipal tie,” school board member Jim Martin said. “I know that’s not popular in some quarters, but we’re an ever-expanding county. It’s hard to tell where one municipality starts and one ends.”
No formal votes were taken at the facilities committee meeting, but a majority of the board members was present. The discussion signals that schools will probably continue to be named after roads, historic communities or geographic features such as creeks.
The position isn’t absolute. Last week, the board voted to use South Garner as the name for a new high school in Garner.
Also last week, the school board passed a resolution requesting that the new career and technical education high school in South Raleigh be named after the late Vernon Malone, who was a state senator, school board chairman and chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. Typically, the school board is in charge of naming schools, but the final decision on the technical high school rests with the commissioners because the building is owned by the county.
School board members said last week’s actions should be considered the exception and not the rule.
“I don’t think we benefit the community or the system by engaging in whose name, or what name, to honor or to recognize,” school board member Bill Fletcher said.
Many of Wake’s older schools are named after individuals, including school board members, other elected officials and school employees such as superintendents, principals and teachers. Some schools also bear the names of the municipalities where they are located.
Adams Elementary School in Cary, which opened in 1969, was the last school in the state’s largest school district named after a person. Henry Adams was a school board member.
After years of stormy sessions over whose names should appear on schools, the board banned naming schools for individuals. The ban on using people’s names was dropped in 2010.
This year, the school board wrestled with the issue of school naming at multiple meetings before voting in August to change the name of the new West Apex High to Apex Friendship High. The change was applauded by residents of the Friendship community but criticized by some families who expect to attend the school when it opens in 2015.
The choice was supposed to be a compromise to keep Apex in the name.
Board members said Wednesday that they want school administrators to recommend a specific name instead of presenting a list of choices.
“I would love for this to be much more of a staff activity than at a board level,” Fletcher said. “I would rather be focused on other things than taking the time to be involved in naming of a school.”
Board members gave guidance on what they’d like staff to avoid recommending, including the names of Wake’s 12 towns.
“If you end up with Apex High, East Apex, or West Apex or South Apex, it just gets too cloudy and difficult for people to keep up with,” board member Susan Evans said. “I think it’s better to stick with some of these historic and geographic features so that a school can have its own unique identity.”
Evans noted that the county’s growth can lead to problems with names. As an example, she cited West Cary Middle School, which opened in the 1965. Its location is no longer considered the western part of Cary.
Evans said she’s not thrilled that one of the choices for a new high school is Southwest Cary High. But Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht has said that town leaders want Cary incorporated into the school’s name.
Some board members also pointed to families’ complaints about not going to school in the town where they live. They said the problem is aggravated when the school’s name mentions a town. Some schools have students assigned from more than one municipality.
“The simple matter already is we don’t recognize municipal lines in student assignment,” board member Tom Benton said.
Board members also raised concerns about being drawn into political controversy if they’re asked to name schools after individuals.
“What happens if someone demands we name it Ronald Reagan High?” Fletcher said. “I don’t know if we want to get into that.”