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Rochester School Board split over new elementary school name

The decision came down to a 3-3 vote, with one abstention.

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Rendering of the new elementary school in Rochester. (Contributed)

After delaying the decision multiple times, the Rochester School Board arrived at an impasse over the options for the district's new elementary school name.

The board considered two names at its Tuesday meeting: Henry Plummer Elementary and Overland Elementary. The board voted on approving Overland Elementary after Henry Plummer failed to receive a motion.

During the vote, however, there was a tie. Board members Melissa Amundsen, Jess Garcia and Julie Workman voted against the name Overland Elementary. Board members Cathy Nathan, Jean Marvin and Don Barlow voted in favor of the name. Karen MacLaughlin abstained from the vote, simply stating that she chose to sit the decision out.

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Barlow said it's important to respect the public's wishes.

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"We asked the public for input, and they provided," he said. "I think we shouldn't go out of our way to alienate the community; we should show every indication we're supportive of their input and that it's valued."

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Marvin, the board chair, suggested revisiting the topic at the board's next meeting.

Like Barlow, Garcia said it's important to listen to the input from the community. She went on to say, however, that it's also important to make sure the process is truly open to the public. Rather than just relying on those who saw the link for the nomination process and decided to take part, she said it would be better for the district to go out and actively engage the public in the naming process.

"I just worry that that's something we are becoming notorious for; that there are small groups of people that have the resources in which to be heard in a way that others maybe don't," Garcia said. "And then we're left with very constricted options."

Superintendent Michael Muñoz clarified that the district did utilize its bilingual staff in the nomination process for the elementary school name.

Arriving at the two finalists had been an extended process. The district asked the public to submit nominations for the new name. According to RPS Communications Director Heather Nessler, the district received 135 "unique names" from the inquiry.

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A committee then whittled that list down to five names. Those five were released back to the public, which was asked to rank them. The two names that received the highest rankings from the public were Henry Plummer and Overland. The School Board was tasked with picking one of those two finalists.

The School Board had discussed the process during its Jan. 19 meeting, as well. At the time, Amundsen said the results from the ranking process were not necessarily clear-cut. She pointed out that although 25% of the those who participated ranked Overland as their first choice, placing it higher on the list, 28% of the respondents ranked it as their least favorite option.

The board members also commented that the two finalists did not reflect the diversity of the community very well. Marvin acknowledged that at the Jan. 19 meeting, but she also clarified that the community had followed the procedure the board asked them to.

"I think there were a few board members who were a little disappointed that the top two names didn't reflect the kind of rich diversity we'd like to see in our school names," she said. "However, this is the process we told our community we would use ... these are the two names that have been delivered to us."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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