After months of heated discussions and rallies, the New Haven Board of Education approved a motion Tuesday night to rename Alvarado Middle School after Filipino-American leaders.
Board members voted 3-2 in favor of changing the school’s name to Iltliong-Veracruz Middle School after Filipino American labor leaders Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, making it the first school in the country to name a school after Filipino Americans.
However, the approved motion, made by board member Michelle Matthews, calls for the name to take effect no sooner than the fall of 2015 and only after an implementation plan is created and funds are entirely secured.
Supporting community organizations have pledged to cover the administrative costs of changing the school’s name, which Superintendent Kari McVeigh estimated Tuesday night at more than $15,000. Additional costs, such as uniforms, would bring the cost up to $26,000, but officials said AMS-branded uniforms and teaching materials would still be used until their current supplies run out.
Tuesday night’s decision did not come easy.
Board members clashed after hearing speakers voice many of the same concerns that have been brought up before — money, unity, divisions, maintaining history, creating history.
Even Anthony Chavez, grandson of Cesar Chavez, attended the meeting to speak to the role Itliong and Vera Cruz played in his grandfather’s legacy and workers’ rights. Itliong and Vera Cruz helped organize the 1965 Delano Grape Strike, which led to the United Farm Workers movement.
Chavez said his grandfather’s work would not have been whole without the help of Itliong and Vera Cruz and that renaming the school would “bring about a great unity.”
While “unity” has been a slogan on both sides of the discussion, Tuesday night’s buzzword was “process.”
The board was railed by several community members, including AMS teachers, upset over the lack of public discourse regarding the name change — and a majority of the board members fessed up to their faults.
According to a district board policy, an existing school can be renamed “only under extraordinary circumstances and after thorough study.”
“I feel compelled to apologize tot his community for the lack of leadership and direction from this board,” Matthews said. “At what point are we going to act as a body and take responsibility for the lack of process?”
Board member Michael Ritchie also took responsibility for the lack in leadership and tried to rectify it with a motion to keep the AMS name, which was seconded by board member Sarabjit Cheema but ultimately failed.
“I strongly believe that Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz are deserving of an honor such as the naming of an institution, possibly a school, but we have really, really not done a good job on the process,” Ritchie admitted.
“We, this board, made a decision without having any site discussion about this,” he added, referring to a Jan. 15 vote to change the school’s name. “We have not had an extraordinary circumstance nor a thorough study.”
Ritchie also warned that the decision to rename the school could create “a dangerous precedent” allowing other schools to be renamed.
But board president Linda Canlas, a rabidly ardent supporter of the name change, was not so concerned.
“Tonight our job is to take action one way or the other; it’s not to discuss process. If that was a problem we will discuss that as a board, but this process did not happen recently,” Canlas said.
According to Canlas, the Itliong-Vera Cruz name has been considered since the renaming of New Haven Middle School to Cesar Chavez Middle School 13 years ago. The name has been passed up four times in the past, she said.
“It is very important that we start opening our eyes and allow the people that are part of American history to be part of this district,” Canlas said.
Despite all the talk about the process, the board shot down Ritchie’s motion to keep the AMS name and seek another facility to name after Itliong and Vera Cruz.
Matthews offered her motion: rename the school but wait until 2015 to do so. It was seconded by Canlas and passed with a 3-2 vote, with Matthews, Canlas and Jonas Dino in favor and Ritchie and Cheema against it.
“My intention was always to recognize leaders regardless of ethnicity,” Matthews told Patch.
She said the motion was meant to be a compromise to ease tensions between the supporting and opposing community groups.
“I don’t believe either side intended to create division,” Matthews said.
Emotions were mixed once the decision was announced.
On one end was a victorious celebration. On the other, outrage.
“It was unfair,” said AMS parent and alumnus Veronica Parra. “They denied the public’s input. They’re taking away our history, they’re taking away our pride.”
“That’s not how you earn recognition,” added Ruben Parra. “They’re taking away a lot of sentimental history.”
Those against the name change said they would seek action and challenge the legality of the board’s decision.
“Nobody really won here tonight,” said Lance Nishihira, a member of the AMS School Site Council. “Even though there may be a lot of smiles on people’s faces, I don’t think they truly understand the negative undercurrents and divisions it’s going to create.”
Meanwhile, supporters of the name change, which includes the New Haven Pilipino American Society for Education, Filipino Advocates for Justice and Kaisahan, held an impromptu rally inside of the district office.
“I’m just in utter awe that we made national history,” said Tracie Noriega, principal of Alvarado Elementary School and a PAHSE member.
She especially commended the youth in leading the charge.
“You really were able to show our board members why this has to happen,” she told the group.
But the small celebration wasn’t just a victory lap as leaders began discussing strategy and the next steps to take.
Ivan Santos, a Filipino Heritage Studies teacher at Logan, said community building is their no. 1 priority.
“We need to keep this community a community,” Santos said. “We need to build it and make it stronger.”
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