Central Unified trustees outraged advocates on both sides of a school renaming battle when they voted 4-2 Tuesday night to choose a neutral name for the school formerly known as James K. Polk Elementary.
And some of those trustees could wind up being the targets of recall efforts, several speakers warned.
The school will now be known as Central Elementary, a name that was first proposed by board President Richard Solis at last month’s meeting when the board voted to strip Polk’s name from the school. Solis had offered the name Central Elementary in a nod to the district’s upcoming centennial. His motion, however, died for lack of a second.
The moniker Central Elementary had limited public support on a community survey taken by the district after the board’s vote last month to remove Polk’s name, garnering only six nominations.
The top two nominated names were Polk and Maria Moreno, the first woman farmworker hired to be a labor organizer. Moreno’s name was first proposed by incoming sixth-grader Malachi Suarez, whose fourth-grade GATE project on President James K. Polk’s history as a racist slaveholder sparked the move to rename the school.
Role Model for Students
A number of Moreno’s descendants were among the many callers and speakers at Tuesday’s meeting, urging the board to honor Moreno as a role model for the many Mexican-American and other students of color who attend Central Unified schools.
Moreno, a native of Texas, worked for labor organizations in Fresno and the Valley that preceded the better-known United Farm Workers headed by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
While the speakers who appeared in-person at the board meeting were a mix of supporters for keeping Polk’s name and changing it to Maria Moreno, dozens of phone callers uniformly advocated for Moreno to be the school’s namesake.
And the passion that surfaced at town hall meetings and recent School Board meetings erupted on both sides of the issue. Gina Sellers, who had been accused of tearing down Malachi’s poster on Polk and then served on the school renaming subcommittee alongside Malachi’s father Gabriel, angrily accused the trustees of defying the constituents who elected them.
“Since you guys will not fight for my community members, since you will not fight for Central, I will. And you do not want me coming at you,” Sellers warned.
Gabriel Suarez made an impassioned speech in favor of choosing Maria Moreno as the school’s namesake, which came after he had accused some board members of being unfit to hold office and, potentially, candidates for recall.
“This is a chance for you to do what’s right and end the unacceptable tradition of celebrating racists. Start caring about all of your students,” he said. “Remember that you work for the students, and it’s time to show them that representation matters. Celebrating Polk doesn’t create a positive school environment. It’s demoralizing, discouraging, unjustifiable, and disgusting. That’s why you should name the school after Mario Moreno, a true American hero we could all celebrate. And if it’s difficult to stop celebrating white supremacists, then you’re not fit for this job.”
Trustees Jeremy Mehling and Jason Paul made a second attempt at keeping Polk’s name on the school, even though their effort at the June 28 board meeting died by a 2-5 vote. This time it failed by a 2-4 vote, with Mehling and Paul voting in favor, and Solis, Trustees Philip Cervantes, Yesenia Carrillo, and Shawn Brooks voting against. Trustee Naindeep Singh Chann was absent due to illness.
Brooks then proposed and Carrillo seconded naming the school Central Elementary, which passed by a 4-2 vote with Paul and Mehling opposing. The vote prompted a loud protest by Malachi’s family and friends, who shouted “representation matters” as the trustees left the dais for a short recess.
Past Recall Efforts Unsuccessful
Central Unified has a long history of recall attempts targeting trustees. In March 1988 recall notices were served on all seven trustees by a citizens’ group alleging district officials illegally used developer-fee money and under-funded Teague Elementary School. The effort failed to qualify for the ballot.
In June 1999 four trustees were served with recall notices by community members unhappy over their loyalty to then-Superintendent George Keledjian. Proponents later abandoned the effort.
In 2018 efforts were initiated to recall Solis, Cervantes and Trustee Terry Cox over the board’s vote to terminate the contract of then-Superintendent Mark Sutton, even though Cervantes and Cox had voted against ending the contract. The recall efforts failed to qualify for the ballot. Solis and Cervantes were re-elected in 2020; Cox opted not to seek re-election that year.