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Newport News School Board chair: Name changes won't happen until 2021, will cost about $100k per school

The school board voted to rename four schools because their names refer to people or places connected to slavery, the Civil War, or segregation.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The Newport News School Board voted Tuesday night to change the name of four schools named after locations or people with ties to slavery, the Civil War, and the segregated Jim Crow era.

Newport News Public Schools will be changing the names of Epes, Lee Hall, and Nelson Elementary schools, as well as Dozier Middle School.

It was a racist recording of R.O. Nelson -- the “Nelson” in the elementary school’s name -- that led a parent to complain and get the push for change going.  

“There is a recording of Mr. Nelson around the time period of 1955, I believe it’s from the Daily Press, where he was fairly emphatic that he’s not going to allow black children into Newport News schools,” school board chair Douglas Brown said. 

Brown added, he also received a letter from Governor Ralph Northam with a request of his own. 

“That letter did urge school divisions -- our school division -- to take on the process of removing ties to Confederate legacies and those types of heritage," he said. 

Brown said all of that, coupled with a nationwide push for equality and his personal belief that Newport News should be inclusive and welcoming to all students, led the board to vote to change the names of the schools.

Brown said the name changes won’t happen until next year.  

“We’re looking at April 2021. The expectation is the board will take action to adopt new names for those schools and we will start that process of renaming," he said. “We are going to take the time that’s needed to gather input from the community. The superintendent laid out last night a fairly lengthy process that’s going to run from now until March for soliciting the new names for our for school buildings.” 

And the superintendent has already outlined a budget. 

“The cost of each school is less than $100,000... in terms of total cost," Brown said. "And that total cost does not have to be spent all at once, meaning that it can be spaced out over multiple years through our capital projects.”

The money will cover everything associated with the name change. 

“Sports jerseys, redoing the floors, signage, letterheads, all the like,” Brown explained. 

School officials are also considering six other schools for name changes. Brown said the district will hire an independent historian to determine if they should be changed as well.