San Rafael's Dixie school district votes to change its name critics linked to Confederacy

Ending months of contentious debate, the Dixie School District Board of Trustees voted Tuesday night to change the name of the district. 

"I don't want another trustee to have to deal with this type of challenge ever again," said board member Brooks Nguyen before casting one of three 'yes' votes. 

Nguyen was referring to the divisive nature of the name change campaign and personal attacks that accompanied it.  

Condemning what she called "relentless political activism," Nguyen said she would nevertheless support the change to avoid continued turmoil as the district begins searching for a new superintendent. 

Trustee Megan Hutchinson also voted 'yes', but not before expressing her disgust at "weaponizing this issue." 

Since the beginning of the school year, meetings have been dominated by discussion of the Dixie name.

Opponents argue it is a racist nod to the Confederate-era south that is hurtful to African Americans. 
Dixie defenders say the name is part of their San Rafael community, and important to the traditions they and their children grew up with. 

"We are not talking about student learning because we're only talking about this," noted Hutchinson.

The Dixie name dates back to the founding of the district in the late 1800's.

The drive to change it has surfaced several times over the past thirty years.  

"We stand with our black brothers and sisters," exclaimed speaker Yavar Amidi, a district alumnus, now leading a group of college students called Students for Unity and Justice. 

The group chanted outside at the start of the meeting and during their public comment opportunity, held a moment of silence for victims of racism.

For an hour, the board heard public comment, reminiscent of what they have heard in meetings all year. 

"Those college students are mad we didn't teach them about Dixie when they were here," said name change supporter Bruce Anderson, "because there is real harm in the name Dixie, it won't go away, this is your opportunity, change it." 

But supporters of the name, while outnumbered, shared their views too. 

"There are 56,000 people in the country named Dixie," said Isabellle Finney, "and this district has never been thought of as racist. I have African American friends who think this is a joke."  

Some speakers criticized the board as indecisive.  

"You seem paralyzed, terrified to actually make a decision, like if you drag this out, it will just disappear," said Philip Simon, who supports the name change. 
But others complained the board is rushing. 

"Take your time, do not rush this decision, put thought in it, " urged Eric Erlandson, "because a lot of people on both sides are going to extremes and that needs to stop."

One teacher, who leads orchestra classes at all four Dixie schools, said her support for a name change was costing her students. 

"Someone is telling people not to sign students up for orchestra, so you want to talk about bullying? That's bullying," said Sherry Vakharia.

"You are a lovely community not because your name is Dixie," Vakharia continued, "you're a lovely community with a horrible name."

On it went, until finally, the board moved on to financial considerations, and resolved that no district funds will be used to pay for the name change expenses. 

The Marin Community Foundation has offered to cover the cost, estimated at $40,000 but possibly higher, driven up by modifications at Dixie Elementary School. 

Potential new names will also be culled by a citizen committee and submitted to the board by consideration, in time for the change to take effect for the next school year, starting August 22, 2019.

Calling the process a "media circus and hostile environment," Board Chairman Brad Honsberger cast the lone 'no' vote on the name change. 

"I refuse to be bullied, pressured or threatened into making a decision for our community, I want to make this decision with our community," declared Honsberger, referring to a 2020 public advisory vote on the issue, already approved by a previous board. 

Board member Alyssa Chacko abstained on the name change, after pressing colleague Marnie Glickman to explain why she spearheaded it without consulting fellow board members first. 

"I want to know how we're gong to work together going forward," said Chacko, " because a campaign crafted and orchestrated without consulting any other member is not a pattern acceptable to how a board operates."

Glickman made a verbal commitment to work with rest of the board in the future, and the vote followed moments later.

Among those happiest with the result, a Mill Valley man who was the first to request the name Dixie be dumped, back in 1997.

"I got death threats and I was called a gorilla," Kerry Peirson told KTVU, " so now twenty years later in a room full of supporters, all of the attention has come quite a ways. I don't think they embraced the name change, but it's done."