North Thurston Public Schools will keep its name.
“I’m happy,” said 1987 Timberline graduate and district parent Baurice Nelson, who helped collect more than 800 signatures on a petition against changing Thurston County’s largest school system to Lacey Public Schools. “They did hear what people had to say, and I think they made the absolute right decision based on what happened tonight.”
The North Thurston School Board received nearly two hours of public comment on Thursday night at Chinook Middle School about the proposal. Officials say the idea has been kicked around for several years during joint Lacey City Council and School Board meetings.
The School Board held a work session on the proposal in April. Before moving forward with the idea, board members decided to seek public input through an online survey and testimony at the special meeting.
About 1,000 people responded to the district’s survey, and most people were against the name change, according to North Thurston spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve.
That trend continued at the meeting, which drew about 150 people. The overwhelming message from the 50 or so speakers, which included parents, school employees, students and community members: Don’t change the name.
One of the city’s leaders even spoke against it.
“I don’t see it benefiting the city; I don’t see it benefiting the students in terms of increasing their education opportunities and the facilities they have to occupy to improve that education process,” said longtime Lacey City Council member Virgil Clarkson, who is not seeking reelection at the end of his term. “I think, as has been said by many who have spoken this evening: It’s about the kids, and that’s what we’re about.”
About 10 people — including a real-estate agent, a representative from Panorama City retirement community and former Lacey city manager Greg Cuoio — spoke in favor of the change.
Lacey resident Ruth Weigelt, who has three children and a grandson who have gone through North Thurston Public Schools, said she supported the proposal because the city’s partnerships have made a difference in local schools and that connection needs to be embraced.
“One of the things that I was told early on in my professional career by a boss was that the only thing constant in life is change,” she said. “So I would hope that we take that into consideration and we have to accept change through life.”
Following the public comments, School Board president Aaron Owada called for a motion, but the five elected leaders remained silent.
“The proposal dies for lack of a motion,” said Owada.
His words were met with a standing ovation from the crowd.
The nearly 14,000-student district was established in 1953 — 13 years before the city of Lacey was incorporated. Schrieve said it would cost less than $10,000 to make most of the changes needed for the name change, including district signage and website domain changes. Other costs such as letterhead and business cards could be phased in over time, she said.
However, North Thurston alumna Cathy Callahan, whose father was the first superintendent of the district, spoke about district documents that she received in a public records request that indicated the real costs were expected to be 10 times that amount.
“The initial cost estimates were very rough guesstimates by staff for the work session,” Schrieve told The Olympian on Friday. “The board then asked us to refine the estimates, get hard numbers and figure out what could wait versus what would have to be done immediately.For example, the initial bus sign numbers in particular were way off initially.”
One of the biggest supporters of the name change was Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder, who contended that the name change would demonstrate the close relationship between the city and school district. The city is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and during an earlier interview with The Olympian Ryder said he thought renaming the school district would be a good birthday present for the city.
That statement drew public backlash on social media and from some of the speakers at the meeting.
“I am right in the middle of all of this, unexpectedly, and to tell you the truth, if it wasn’t for my involvement in the city council and now the mayor, I might be standing on that side over there (opposing side) … because I graduated from North Thurston High School, my mom graduated from North Thurston High School, my son graduated from North Thurston High school,” Ryder said. “I bleed purple.”
But he said the name change was about looking forward, and helping the district prosper. He said the city’s decisions on land use, development and property taxes will affect the school district.
“No matter what we do, no matter what you guys do going forward, and I know it’s a tough, tough decision, but we’re going to be tied at the hip,” Ryder told the School Board.
He said the city would continue to support the school district in its various partnerships, no matter how the School Board voted on the issue.
Several school district employees spoke during the meeting. Ray Nelson with the North Thurston Education Association said the teachers union objected to the proposed name change because of its cost, and historical and cultural reasons for the district. Nelson said the name change would force the teachers union to change its name, too.
“While we recognize that the city of Lacey is currently in its 50th anniversary — and that is something to celebrate — we do not accept the proposition that the name of the district needs to change to include the city’s name as a part of the anniversary celebration.”
Timberline High choir teacher Terry Shaw also criticized the proposal.
“Does this directly benefit children, students in our schools?” he said. “…For me, this decision does not.”
Shaw said the School Board should put the money it would cost for a name change into the district’s classrooms.
“I would invite every one of you to come into my classroom, spend a day with me, and you will never want to spend money on changing signs again. … That money needs to go to kids.”
Chinook Middle School eighth-grader Asuka Conyer, 14, said everyone at her school had a strong opinion about the name change. The school’s leadership team did an all-school vote on the proposal, and the results were: 17 students in support, 22 were neutral and 346 were opposed to the name change.
“In my opinion, I’m also against,” Conyer said, saying the School Board could use the money to help students.
During an earlier interview with The Olympian, soon-to-be-retired North Thurston superintendent Raj Manhas said, on a personal level, he supported the name change.
He believed the name change would have helped give the school district better name recognition. North Thurston becomes a barrier when trying to recruit potential teachers and staff members at statewide and national events, he said.
Chinook eighth-grader Davina Wright, 14, didn’t think that was a good reason to make the change.
“You say that we’d be better seen on a map if we changed a name; shouldn’t a future employee at one of our schools know how to find us?” she said. “…A name is just a name, but a community behind the name is the real gift, and the real thing that attracts people to our district.”