Critics of the Arlington School Board’s hastily enacted proposal to change the name of Washington-Lee High School have called for a countywide referendum on the November ballot to decide the matter.
Trouble is, Virginia law precludes it.
“I checked, and the County Board is not authorized to ask for referendums that are advisory,” Clerk of the Circuit Court Paul Ferguson said in response to a Sun Gazette inquiry.
It was the same answer that was proffered in 2013-14, when critics of the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar project sought to have that plan put to a public vote. None was held, but the streetcar project collapsed late in 2014 when two Democratic County Board members – Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes – switched from support to opposition, sending the County Board from a 3-2 backing of the transit idea to a 4-1 majority in favor of killing it off.
School Board members earlier this month voted to ratify a staff proposal that called the name of Washington-Lee High School out of step with the school system’s values.
Over the past year, the school system received a few dozen requests to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from the school, but the process that the School Board set up for a renaming doesn’t guarantee that Washington’s name will survive, either. A task force will be set up later in the year to propose a new name.
If enough members of the public end up irked at the renaming and/or the rushed process that led to it, they could turn to the General Assembly for redress. And as recent history has shown, Republican members of the legislature seem to enjoy toying with Arlington for the sheer fun of it.
(Because Arlington has a unique government structure under Virginia law, the General Assembly is able to tailor measures that apply only to it, and not to any of the other 132 counties and cities in the commonwealth. Sticking it to Arlington has been a long tradition in the legislature, dating back to the 1950s when the General Assembly killed off the county’s elected School Board.)
While any legislation in the 2019 session stripping or limiting the School Board’s ability to name schools probably wouldn’t survive Gov. Northam’s veto pen even if it did win legislative approval, the issue would give the Republican majority in each house the chance to bottle up Arlington’s other legislative priorities and make the county play defense on the school-naming issue.
That’s what happened in 2017, when county officials unsuccessfully battled measures limiting their ability to regulate towing, and in 2018, when the county tried to fend off a measure providing tax relief to Arlington’s two country clubs.
In response to public inquiries, school officials are estimating it would cost no more than $400,000 to accomplish a name-change effort, based on the pending renaming of J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County to “Justice High School.”