For almost a year, Spokane Public Schools has been forced into a series of hard choices with only one guaranteed outcome: Someone will be offended.
So it will be again on May 26, when the school board will decide the names of three new middle schools.
At first glance, it’s not as treacherous as the decision to begin the year with distance learning, the record-breaking request for a replacement levy or even last week’s decision to build a new sports stadium downtown.
Yet names are a powerful thing, especially when they’ll be carved in stone for generations. Before that occurs, the public will have one last chance to comment Wednesday night.
The board is expected to make a final decision on the middle school names on May 26 – just in time for groundbreaking early next month at the two new North Side middle schools.
That gives the public one more chance on Wednesday night to weigh in on a process that began in the spring of 2019.
Since then, the district has received more than 1,400 responses from the public.
According to public records obtained by The Spokesman-Review, four of the public’s top five choices made the final cut.
However, four other finalists received scant support from the public, yet became finalists after what Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson described as “a series of thoughtful discussions by the committee.”
“It really wasn’t about the number of votes, but more about the merit,” said Anderson, who noted that some candidates were boosted by ballot-stuffing; that is, numerous votes from the same IP address.
“The committee members did a lot of homework,” Anderson added.
After two weeks of poring over the 1,400 responses at home, each of the panelists submitted five candidates per school.
Over the course of several meetings, the choices for each school were narrowed from 15 to 10 to five and finally to three.
“We tried very hard to get a consensus,” Anderson said.
According to SPS documents, the people’s top choices were Holocaust freedom fighter Carla Peperzak, with more than 170 votes. Next was teacher and northeast Spokane community leader Denny Yasuhara, who received 85 votes.
Longtime Hillyard patriarch Silvio Mauro got about 70 votes, as did former Sacajawea Middle School teacher John Oakley.
Others receiving at least 20 votes were former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Spokane sports advocate Joe Albi, attorney and civil rights icon Carl Maxey, Steve Gleason and Frances Scott, a former teacher who also was Spokane’s first African American attorney.
Mauro, Albi, Maxey and Gleason didn’t make the list. Meanwhile, four candidates with two public votes or fewer qualified based on merit.
They include Beacon Pines, a name reflecting Spokane’s Beacon Hill located northeast of the city; Eugene Breckenridge, the first African American teacher in Spokane Schools; Pauline Flett, an elder in the Spokane Tribe who co-wrote the first Spokane-English dictionary; and York, an explorer and the lone African American on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
However, after closer examination and independent conclusions by committee members, those names rose to the top.
Less well-known to the public, their stories are inspiring.
Breckenridge, who garnered just one vote from the public, served in the U.S. Army in World War II and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Whitworth.
However, Breckenridge couldn’t get a job teaching in Spokane until Maxey threatened the district with a lawsuit. Breckenridge went on to teach math and science at middle school and Shadle Park High School before becoming president of the state teachers’ union.
After approving the finalists, the committee was required to place them in groups of three for each middle school. They are as follows:
• Northwest middle school: Breckenridge, Flett, Ginsburg
• Northeast middle school: Yasuhara, Scott, Beacon Pines
• South middle school: Peperzak, Oakley, York
• Yasuhara, former president of the Spokane Coalition for Human Rights and a teacher at Logan Elementary and Garry Middle School, figures to be the favorite in the northeast.
• Oakley, a teacher and coach in the district for 36 years, was easily the top vote-getter on the South Hill. Oakley taught, coached and inspired students at Garfield and Roosevelt elementary schools and Sacajawea – even after his ALS diagnosis.
However, the screening committee placed Peperzak – the top vote-getter – among the South finalists along with York, handing the board a difficult choice.
That also sets up a tough decision for the new northwest middle school with Ginsburg – a popular but polarizing figure with no ties to Spokane – vying with Breckenridge and Flett.
Peperzak and Ginsburg drew support from around the city and not any one area.
On top of that, there are sure to be hard feelings at the exclusion of Albi, whose namesake stadium won’t be rebuilt at the current site.
The board also must consider the big picture.
It could choose to honor three prominent teachers in Yasuhara, Breckenridge and Oakley.
However, all three are male – a major consideration for a district with only two schools (Sacajawea Middle School and Frances Willard Elementary) out of 45 currently named for women.
Perhaps for that reason, board members agreed last week to vote at once on all three school names, plus that of the OnTrack Academy. That way it could review its choices and make a change for the sake of racial or gender considerations.
The district has not named a new school since 1994, when a new middle school was named for James Chase, the first African American mayor of Spokane.
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