WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County School Board member Marty Helsley spoke for 22 minutes on Thursday on the board's decision last month to rename schools. At times, Helsley broke down in tears as he spoke.
Helsley was the only one on the board to vote against the renaming of Stonewall Jackson High School and Ashby Lee Elementary School on July 9 – the renaming follows a recent resolution that members had passed condemning racism and affirming the division's commitment to an inclusive school environment for all.
Helsley became tearful as he read an email he had received from Denise Click, who has a child at Stonewall Jackson High School.
"He was proud to be raised to be a General," Helsley said as he read Click's email talking about her son. "And every day he steps foot in that school and every time he puts on that uniform and any time someone asks him what school he goes to he beams with pride. Do you know you crushed the spirit of that teenager who gives his absolute all for education and sports? Do you care that he sobbed for hours (after the decision to change the name)?"
Helsley also said that the decision by the School Board has divided Stonewall Jackson High School, according to the email from Click.
"Do you understand why a name is an identity good or bad?" Helsley said in reading the email out loud. "Do you understand that current students who care about their school feel like they have lost their identity? Finally, please help me put the right words to explain to my son when he comes to me saying the school is now divided. What explanation do I give him when he tells me that the atmosphere was one of inclusiveness and teamwork but now students are pitting against each other because of a decision that was made for them?"
Helsley said that the whole process was rushed and has now divided the school.
"I will do everything I can to heal the division but the four veterans on here we need to work together on this," Helsley said. "It is not selecting a name – that's not going to do it. I will be doing anything in my power, and I apologize for the hatred that was extended to the four veterans and (School Board member) Andrew (Keller). I stood up for what I thought was right. We rushed through this – you all know it."
Helsley started his comments by going over a timeline for how things have gone down. He said that on June 25 they passed the resolution and he had no problem with that. On July 3, he said they met and talked with schools Superintendent Mark Johnston about the possibility of renaming the schools.
"We ended the meeting and this is what I said: 'Our number one goal is to open schools, since they were closed since March 13,'" Helsley said. "'We can deal with this issue later.'"
Helsley said at the July 9 School Board meeting he asked for there to be a one-month delay and was denied.
Helsley said that he had a meeting with Johnston on July 21 and he asked Johnston what is the policy for renaming the schools?
"He gave me document used to the renaming process," Helsley said. "It was six paragraphs. The last paragraph there is only one sentence that applies to what we did on July 9, and it reads 'the Board may rename the school or school facilities upon determination that it is appropriate to do so.' That's all it says."
Helsley said that he also did some research and found a document that Duval County in Florida had on the possibility of renaming schools. He gave a copy of the document to each of the board members and he highlighted a few things from the document.
He said the most important thing to note from the document is that it says one of the requirements for the approval of a new name should be "contingent upon sufficient funds being raised in order to fully implement all aspects of the name adjustment, and shall be effective upon the district's verification that all funds have been secured."
"The ones that pushed this through I challenge them to raise $500,000," Helsley said. "That will make the commitment that they are sincere in having the name changed, and it's not in the burden of the taxpayers of our county."
Helsley ended his speech to cheers from protesters who were outside the School Board office by quoting what is known to be the last words from Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson.
"Like Stonewall Jackson. 'let us cross the river and rest in the shade of the trees,'" Helsley said.