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Storm brews over school name pick
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Naming Ceres' next junior high school after Cesar Chavez - the late farmworker labor union leader - has brewed a storm of controversy in Ceres which is expected to spill into the Ceres Unified School District Board of Trustees chambers tomorrow night.

A group is expected to challenge what they state was a violation of board policy of naming schools when CUSD selected the well-known state figure over more well-deserving local folks. Since 1990 CUSD has had a policy of naming Ceres schools after geographical regions - such as it did for the choice of Blaker Kinser Junior High or Central Valley High School - or someone who contributed to the district or the community. That policy guided CUSD leaders in years past in naming schools after Walter White, Mae Hensley, Sam Vaughn, Virginia Parks, M. Robert Adkison, and the Sinclear, Berryhill and La Rosa families.

Last month the board chose names for two planned elementary schools and a proposed junior high school. Trustees tapped the name of Walt Hanline, the current superintendent of CUSD, and for the second school chose Lucas, the last name of longtime residents and farmers Grant and Mildred Lucas. In 1976 Mildred wrote an extensive book on the history of Ceres "From Amber Grain ... To Fruited Plain." Grant Lucas served on the Ceres School Board. However, critics say trustees went outside of their established policy to skip over other recommended names of longtime Ceres area residents to select a California figure who has been extensively honored already. The board received requests for the schools to be named after Wayne Salter, the Moffet-Long family, and long-time teacher and coach Phil de la Porte, among others.

Ceres area farmer Sid Long, who served on the Ceres School Board and whose grandfather was Fred Moffet, founder of Superior Fruit Ranch in 1907, was livid when he heard the board's choice. Long plans to be at tomorrow night's board meeting to ask trustees to reconsider evoking the name of Chavez, a polarizing figure in Valley agriculture. Long believes that the board should stick to its policy and pick a local name.

"These people were here forever and contributed to the community," said Long of local farming names. "Those on the board who haven't been here all that long don't know how much they contributed and I think that will be lost if we don't remember. Those of us who have been here a long time know all about them."

Long, no fan of Chavez and his publicized grape boycotts in the 1960s and 1970s, said he'll refrain from getting into why farmers have antipathy for Chavez and stick to the matter of board policy. "It's not healthy to divide the community over matters like this," said Long, "to where it's an us-and-them sort of thing."

Long said of Chavez: "He never lived in Ceres like these others who were nominated. He's already received accolades for what he's done up and down the state."

Over 30 school districts in the state already have named schools for Chavez.

But others plan to attend to implore the board to stick with its choice of Chavez. Members of the Latino community are rallying attendance at the board meeting to defend the name of Chavez. Maggie Mejia of the Latino Community Roundtable (LCR) in Modesto fired off an e-mail to supporters last week imploring attendance to keep the name. "I feel very strong about this issue," Mejia's e-mail said. "It was several years ago that LCR led the efforts in renaming Fourth Street Park in Modesto to Cesar E. Chavez Park. We had many obstacles but in the long run we prevailed and the entire community and city government supported the change. We need to support the efforts in Ceres and help and support having a school named after Cesar Chavez."

The board asked for community help in picking a name and advertised for recommendations. Each board member picked their five favorites. Salter's name appeared in the top picks of three board trustees - Jim Kinard, Eric Ingwerson and Mike Welsh. Chavez's name appeared on the top choices of Teresa Guerrero, Edgar Romo and Kinard.

Other names that were considered were Howard K. Stevenson, Ben Harden, Betty Davis, Jerry Panella, Almond Grove, Eastgate and Jackson (for Gail Jackson). Trustee Betty Davis supported the naming of one of the schools for herself.

Wayne D. Salter, 95, who graduated from Ceres High School in 1930, is one of the oldest living graduates. After studying agriculture at U.C. Davis, Salter returned to Ceres to farm peaches, and helped to organize the first Ceres Peach Festival, which evolved into the Ceres Harvest Festival, the precursor of the Ceres Street Faire. Salter also served in his church and was elected to serve as a Ceres School Board trustee in the late 1950s.

Salter's daughter, Claudia Salter Grubeck, wants the board to reconsider, saying: "The people of Ceres are outraged. He (Cesar Chavez) never did anything for our schools and the community. They needed to name it for someone who deserves that honor.

"We have so many people that could have had this honor," Grubeck said. "He (Chavez) has enough things named for him.

"My dad was deserving," Grubeck said. "He did a lot for the schools."

Becki Barton Nicholes is a friend of the Salters who is circulating a petition to change the board's mind.

"We're asking the board to reconsider naming the school after someone who contributed to our community," she said. "Chavez didn't."

"They went against its own policy by naming it after someone who didn't live here. I don't know what their thinking was. They made a mistake. My issue was we always named our schools after local servants in our community," she said.

Supt. Walt Hanline defends his board's choice even though the CUSD policy of naming schools is spelled out as follows: "The following criteria in naming schools, buildings or other facilities shall be use: 1). In honor of individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the school district or community; 2). In recognition of the geographic areas in which the school, building or facility is located."

"The issue is the definition of 'community,'" said Hanline. "It's probably anybody who had anything to do with the world. We named a school after Don Pedro. Don Pedro never lived in the community ... he's the guy who was an explorer in the 1600s, I think."

Most, however, would concede that the school, built in the late 1940s, was named after its site being located on Don Pedro Road.

Critics say Ceres has always had a tradition of interpreting "community" as Ceres community, as evidenced by the selection of only local persons.

Hanline noted that 31 schools in California are named after Chavez under policies similar to CUSD's. "So if they're wrong and you're right, then we're wrong and the whole world is wrong and you're right," he said to critics.

"I think getting caught up in the rhetoric of the policy," said Hanline, "is denying the reality that ... Cesar Chavez was a highly controversial figure. Those of us on the right would say it was a negative contribution. Those people on the left would say it was a positive contribution. No one can deny Cesar Chavez was a compassionate, caring and dedicated leader. He impacted the lives of millions of people. To say that he (Chavez) did not contribute to this community is not a fair conclusion."

The selection of Chavez apparently was controversial among the board itself. Trustee Eric Ingwerson said he didn't support Chavez's name in a study session, feeling it "should have picked someone who was local." He later went along with a unanimous vote saying "democracy won out."

"I could have voted no at the meeting but it wouldn't have changed the outcome," said Ingwerson. "I was being a team player."

When asked if Ceres School Board violated its own policy, Ingwerson replied: "It's a matter of opinion."

Trustee Mike Welsh said he will remain open-minded about what public has to say but admitted a change would only be triggered by a "pretty compelling argument."

"I'm half Hispanic," said Welsh. "I'm honored Chavez was chosen."

Welsh denied that the board broke its policy saying "It's all in the interpretation."

Ceres School Board President Teresa Guerrero denied that there was "arm twisting" at the board level and noted "Everyone was in unison on/in this. Everything was done right."

Board Trustee Jim Kinard said: "I don't think we violated the board policy at all from my reading. The policy doesn't say it has to be a local. It simply says individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the school district or community. Migrant workers have clearly contributed. They brought about economic growth in this community. We're honoring a person that gave them a voice."

Hanline noted that naming schools can be a controversial exercise. "I guarantee you that I'm controversial and there's a whole lot of people in this community who strongly believe that that school should in no way be named after that S.O.B" he said in referencing the naming of a school after himself.

But he stated that he doesn't understand why nobody showed up when the board was making its decision.

"If you feel like your name was not given justice, then you should have been at the meeting with your petition and all this information should be kept for the next time," said Hanline. "But don't bloody Monday morning quarterback the board who made the decision based upon the input that was given and its discussion."

Guerrero said Ceres is the first in Stanislaus County with a school named after a civil rights leader and that she thinks the board will stand by its decision.

Dale Butler contributed to this article.