The St. Paul School Board needs to answer an unusual question tonight: Is it too soon to name a school after President Obama?
He has served only slightly more than 100 days in office, but students, staff and community members at Webster Magnet Elementary voted earlier this month to change the school's name to "Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary." The change needs the board's stamp of approval.
"I think it's kind of a rushed decision," said Tom Conlon, who is in the lonely position of being the board's only Republican. "He hasn't passed the test of time."
With six of seven school board members having been endorsed by the DFL, the vote would seem to be a slam dunk. But some board members say they are undecided.
The decision has stirred intense community debate about when it's appropriate to name a school after someone. Should St. Paul go ahead when achievements merit such recognition, thus taking the chance those achievements might be blemished in the future? Or wait until someone dies?
That's what it did for Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary in downtown St. Paul. In the case of Bruce F. Vento Elementary on St. Paul's East Side, its namesake had served nearly 30 years in political office at the state and national level and was critically ill when the name change was made.
The Webster school name, in honor of statesman Daniel Webster, has been around since the 1880s. Webster died in 1852.
Webster is in its first year of a service learning program, and the school wanted a new name to reflect the shift in focus. The site council, made up of parents and community members, put the Obama name and "Webster Service Learning Elementary" on the ballot. Students, staff and St. Paul residents were invited to cast ballots.
The Obama name came away with roughly 60 percent of the 854 votes cast. It is meant to honor the Obamas' commitment to service learning, Principal Lori Simon said.
"I'm sort of balancing these two things in my mind," board member John Brodrick said. "One is that we want to assure that the whole process was done correctly, which resulted in the vote, and at the same time, obviously, there are some political things that we can't avoid. It's almost impossible to avoid that discussion."
According to district policy, new school names, programs, mascots and logos "shall reflect the diversity of the district," and need to be approved by the school board, "in consultation with the school community." Board chairwoman Kazoua Kong-Thao said Monday that the board will now look more closely at the policy.
Because the school followed the prescribed process, board member Anne Carroll said she'll likely vote to approve the change. She said when one board member asked her, "Well, what if they had come up with Ronald Reagan High School?" she replied, "Well, I would hold my nose" and vote for it, if they followed the process.
"If [Obama] turns out to be the most awful president on the planet, and we're embarrassed to have his name associated with us, then we'll change it back," she said.
The meeting is at 5:45 tonight at the school district's headquarters, 360 Colborne St.
Emily Johns • 612-673-7460