Motivated by school pride and inspired by the acts of one beloved teacher, both sides of the debate packed the board of education meeting Tuesday night.
It was a civil yet passionate dialogue that played out during the public input portion of the June 7 meeting in the high school library that included current residents, students and alumni of the Malverne school district.
Marc Loftus, a 1987 graduate of Malverne High School, was the first to speak out about the petition to rename his alma mater after the late Elizabeth Carol Cherry, an alumnus who devoted over 30 years to teaching at the Maurice W. Downing (formerly the Linder Place) School.
"I'm here on behalf of a lot of alumni," said Loftus, who spent over an hour in the school's parking lot that evening selling T-shirts and buttons he made that read "Malverne High School - Then - Now - Always."
Loftus said he had reconnected with several graduates over the past three weeks, after learning that the board of education had voted on a petition to rename the school but then rescinded their motion during
During this time he established a petition that now includes over 800 signatures from alumni, parents and current residents, he explained, as some of these supporters who were in attendance applauded.
"I think it's safe to say that we'd all like to honor Mrs. Cherry...for her years of service to the school," Loftus said. "In discussing this issue with others, there has been no shortage of ideas in ways we might be able to honor Ms. Cherry with a nice tribute."
He suggested renaming parts of the buildings, planting a garden or starting a scholarship instead to avoid an "ugly debate."
Loftus acknowledged that he might not be able to win over all the proponents for renaming the school.
"Some may have a larger agenda, some may see the name change as a way to possibly disassociate the school from a past that they may think is controversial or uncomfortable," he said." None of those are the right reasons to change the name."
Joyce Berry, president of the Howard T. Herber PTA, also expressed her opposition toward the proposal, saying that the name change could be very costly since the district would need to replace stationary, signs, uniforms and other materials.
"[This] is money we don't have because we're laying off teachers," she said. "Let's put the money into the school, give it back to the teachers...why change something that isn't broken?"
Rener Reed, a Lakeview resident who first introduced the idea of renaming the school after Cherry, spoke to clear up a misconception about stripping the school of its Malverne title.
"This renaming would not replace the Malverne name, but embrace the spirit of dedication and devotion that Carol gave to our children," said Reed, as she read the statement she originally sent to the board in January.
In the letter, she proposed adding Cherry's name to Malverne High School, so it would be called the E. Carol Cherry Malverne High School.
"I never once said to get rid of Malverne, " she said. "It was not meant to stir up all of what has been stirred up in this district."
Reed said it was her hope that by honoring Cherry - a woman who went through the Malverne schools during a volatile time and came back to devote her teaching career to the district - in this way, the students would have a role model to look up to.
"This is our Martin Luther King, Jr., our Rosa Parks," she said.
It was school board member Gina Genti, who made the motion during last month's meeting to change the name, that swapped out "Malverne" for "Memorial," but the board decided to rescind the vote after being advised by legal counsel to consult their policies.
After further review, the board members learned that although the power rests with them to rename district buildings just as past officials had changed the name of Maurice W. Downing and Herber Middle School, they had had no formal policy or procedure in place to guide them on this matter.
Therefore, they went to work crafting one in advance of the meeting. The current draft of the six-page policy (see attached) went through a "first reading" Tuesday night and will need to go through a second, and possibly some revisions, before the board votes to adopt it.
Under this version of the policy, the power to rename district facilities still rests solely in the hands of the board, but they now must consider "community input in identifying a meaningful and appropriate name."
Under the policy's "Procedures" section, a petition with a minimum of 200 signatures is required for the board to consider a naming or renaming of a facility, which should identify "why the current facility name is obsolete or inappropriate."
It also mandates that the district notify the person or group who submitted the petition (or nomination) for the name change within 60 days of receiving it to advise them on whether or not the board will vote on conducting an open public discussion on the matter.
The board was patient with the packed crowd, allowing everyone who wished to speak the opportunity to approach the microphone.
Other proud alumni, including 1959 graduate Len Schroeder, shared their memories of their time spent in Malverne High School and pleaded that the board uphold the current name.
"Malverne has always been Malverne High School and should stay Malverne High School," he said, adding that his father even graduated from this school in 1921.
"I am now and will always be a very proud Malverne Mule, " said Ray Carter, Class of '94. "I think we should name something after [Cherry] but not the high school. It's much bigger than any one person, any one neighborhood or any one group."
Students, parents and some faculty in attendance who sported their own T-shirts indicating that they have been working without a contract, campaigned instead for the district to move on from the renaming issue and focus on more pressing matters.
"Changing the name will not change the academics," one Malverne student from Lynbook said. "I don’t feel this should be the main focus. Teachers are getting laid off, some of our great teachers who mentor us and push us, and teachers are working without a contract and our main focus is changing the name of the high school."
One Downing parent even pointed out that the district has already paid tribute to Cherry by planting cherry tree in her honor to her on the school's property. (However, according to a faculty member, no dedication has taken place yet.)
"I personally don't care if the school is called 'school,'" said one mother who recently moved into the district and was contemplating sending her gifted 11-year-old son to the public schools. "I want to make sure the academics are the main focus of this school district before I bring my child here."
She posed the question to the board and community, "Should I send my child to this public school?"