by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Christine Kehoe (file photo)
Nicole Murray Ramirez
Kevin Beiser (file photo)
Jackie Bacon McGlish
A proposal to rename Florence Elementary School, on First Avenue between University and Washington in Hillcrest, after Christine Kehoe, the first openly Queer person to win elective office in San Diego, ran into unexpected community opposition at a meeting at the school Wednesday, October 8. Ironically, the meeting began with a presentation by Moises Aguirre, executive director of district relations for the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), that described a broadly inclusive process for renaming a public school — but that’s exactly what community members, including parents with children at Florence Elementary as well as adults who volunteer there, said wasn’t happening.
“We have a process when we receive a request for changing the name of a school, and we want to involve all the stakeholders,” Aguirre said at the beginning of the meeting. “The first step is receiving a proposal, not necessarily in writing. After that step, there are a number of stakeholder involvement steps, including gauging the interest of the school staff and the community. There will be other community meetings. We will need letters of support from the school principal and staff.”
The proposal originally came from a group calling itself the San Diego LGBT History Task Force, though it’s being strongly pushed by SDUSD board member Kevin Beiser. The presentation on behalf of the Task Force was made by city commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, a long-time San Diego Queer activist who ironically supported Kehoe’s straight opponent, Evonne Schulze, in Kehoe’s pioneering run for the San Diego City Council in 1993. Ramirez identified himself, Beiser, Chris Ward, Susan Jester and Lambda Archives of San Diego staff member Maureen Steiner as the members of the Task Force, and gave the opening presentation on its behalf.
Despite having opposed Kehoe in her initial election bid, Ramirez said “I have worked with her for years” and strongly supported the name change as a way of giving role models to young Queer San Diegans just coming to grips with their sexual identity. “When I was a child in the 1950’s and 1960’s no one on signs or stamps was anything like me,” he said. “You can imagine my joy when things were named for Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and Harvey Milk. Once being a woman or a person of color meant being invisible, but now we are recognizing diverse communities.” He called Kehoe “an historic San Diego citizen who has helped make this America’s finest city.”
Ward added that, though Kehoe’s reputation stems mainly from breaking the glass ceiling and becoming the first openly Queer person elected to office in San Diego, she was involved in other issues as well. “Many of you may not know Chris Kehoe’s achievements in education,” he said. “She spearheaded the schools for trees program and reached out to promote essay contests for local schools. She sponsored the 6 to 6 program as both a City Councilmember and a State Assemblymember. She was honored for her work in reducing class sizes and getting schools to teach the basics.”
Though Beiser and fellow SDUSD board member Richard Barrera were the only elected officials there in person, a long string of political staff members came to the microphone to read letters by their bosses supporting the name change. Jester read a letter from San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer backing it. Evan Ballinger represented San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts. Jessica Mayer spoke on behalf of Congressmember Susan Davis.
Kehoe’s two successors on the San Diego City Council, current Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and current City Council President Todd Gloria, both chimed in through their staff members, Tori Dawn and Adriana Martinez, respectively. Gloria’s letter, read by Martinez, called Kehoe “San Diego’s Harvey Milk.” Atkins was so eager to express her support of renaming Florence after Kehoe, Atkins’ political mentor, that she hadn’t completed the letter but had Dawn read her draft from a smartphone.
Jen Morse, president of the Greater San Diego Business Association (GSDBA) — a group representing businesses either owned by Queers or marketing primarily to Queer customers — also supported the name change. Rebecca Holt, public policy director of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, read a letter from Center director Dr. Delores Jacobs backing it. Representatives of DOD FED GLOBE, an organization aimed at safeguarding the rights of Queer employees of the Department of Defense, and the Hillcrest Business Association also supported the name change.
The impressive list of supporters from both the public and private sectors left Florence Elementary’s own community — school staff members, volunteers and parents of children who attend it — feeling overwhelmed. Aguirre’s decision to call speakers representing elected officials and business groups before he heard from any parents or school volunteers just added insult to injury. They claimed that instead of the inclusive process Aguirre’s opening remarks had promised, supporters of the name change were blindsiding them and presenting it as a virtual fait accompli without giving them the hearing school district policy demands.
“I have been part of the Florence community,” said Jackie Bacon McGlish. “I had students here until 2013. My husband served on the school advisory committee. I’m a lifelong Democrat, but I have concerns about the name change because it’s been forced through without a plan to involve the volunteer community.” She compared the way the “Christine Kehoe Elementary School” name was being pushed with the recent long-term process to rename the school’s library after veteran educator and school staff member Robert Vaughan. McGlish also argued that if the district is going to name a school after Kehoe, it should be a middle or high school instead of an elementary school because discussions of the two key issues in which Kehoe was involved — Queer rights and the environment — would be more appropriate in schools that serve older students.
“I live in the neighborhood, I teach at UCSD, and my son goes to Florence,” said Karen Holtzman. “I’m sure Chris Kehoe is a lovely woman and deserves honors, but this process has not included community members at all. I hope the lip service being paid to involving the community comes to fruition.”
“I have volunteered at Florence Elementary for four years and lived on Dove Street [in Mission Hills, six blocks from the school] for 10 years,” said Nicole Blazie. “I apologize for not having a prepared speech because I didn’t know about this meeting until 2 p.m. today, when a friend of mine e-mailed me a link. I would feel a lot better if there had been an effort to involve the community.”
Blazie particularly bristled at SDUSD board member Barrera’s suggestion that as part of the name change, Florence adopt a new logo and replace its school mascot, the Falcons, with “The Trailblazers.” “Florence is a low-income school,” she said. “The kids wear uniforms and the kids cannot afford new T-shirts. You’re going about this all wrong. If you want the support of the community, you have to involve the community, get us on board, acknowledge that this school is low-income and the parents need help.”
The ferocity of the opposition from Florence’s parents and volunteers took supporters of the name change aback. “I’m an uncle, I’ve had three kids and I’ve had to support all these schools,” said community philanthropist and fundraiser Bruce Abrams. “We as a community would love to help you support the school and support the low income kids. I’ve known Chris Kehoe for 30 years, but it’s important that you know we want to help.”
“I want to apologize to the parents,” said Ramirez after he asked for — and got — special permission to speak at the close of the meeting. “I’m very disturbed because we were told you were involved and this was the beginning of the process. I think it is being pushed on you, and I’m so glad the parents have come forward. Our community and Task Force have been involved in Easter egg hunts for 700 students. We provide school supplies and scholarships. Chris Kehoe has met with your principal, and she had the same concerns. This process has to stop because you’ve been disrespected, and we’ve heard that loud and clear.”
“There’s still a lot of conversation that needs to happen,” said Aguirre as he brought the hour-long meeting to a close. “By no means is this the be-all and end-all of this process. We need to reach out to parents and also school staff, including classified [non-teaching] staff. We hear the community as a whole, and it is diverse. Hopefully as a community we can come forward and support the process. It’s about how do we handle the communities and build a real community.” He asked everyone in the audience who hadn’t put their names and e-mail addresses on the sign-in sheets at the start of the meeting to do so before they left “so we can keep in touch with all the stakeholders. That’s what we do in San Diego: we work as a community.”