STOCKTON — A new middle school here to be named for author Maxine Hong Kingston received unanimous approval. So did the planned elementary schools that will honor Stockton's first African American schoolteacher and a local soldier who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Vietnam War.
But when it came to naming a school after the sitting president of the United States, school board members had different opinions.
The Democrats on the board believed it was premature to honor a leader whose legacy has yet to unfold.
The Republicans, who hold a majority, said phooey. This was about patriotism. And besides, one of them said, there are lots of schools in Stockton named for mediocre presidents.
Thus it was decided that Stockton Unified would become what may be the first school district in the nation to name a school for President George W. Bush. No stranger to close elections, the leader of the free world squeaked by in this one on a 4-3 vote last month.
So far it's just a sprawling expanse of flattened dirt among some of this Central Valley city's last remaining 90-year-old walnut groves. But by fall 2003, the squat, stucco George W. Bush Elementary School will have 25 classrooms and enough space for about 800 year-round students.
School board President Glen Dolberg said he had hoped to avoid controversy over any particular school by bringing up all of the proposed names for a vote at the same time. Flush with cash from an $80-million school bond that passed in November 2000, the overcrowded district of 39,000 students plans to open seven schools by 2008.
"Everybody wants an ethnic representative, and if you do one school at a time, there's a fight," Dolberg said. "The high school went to the Hispanics. [It will be named for Cesar Chavez.] The middle school went to the Chinese American community, with the name Maxine Hong Kingston [author of 'China Men' and 'Warrior Women: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts,' among other books]. She was born, raised and went to school here. One elementary school will be named for Wilhelmina Henry, the first African American teacher in Stockton."
As for Bush, he said, "we didn't have any conservative names, and Bush is a good conservative name. Mr. Bush is quite an outstanding individual who has been underestimated in our country."
And the more he thought about it, Dolberg said, he realized that a Bush school could prove to be a great political opportunity for Stockton. When the school is dedicated, the next presidential campaign will be in full swing.
"I engineered it so that the Bush school would be the one that opens right away," Dolberg said. "I think there's a strong likelihood that we will have someone from the Bush family here to see it open."
Stockton school officials said they believe theirs will be the first school in the nation named for the president. The White House did not respond to requests for confirmation.
To one school board member, Clem Lee, a Republican, the Bush name is an expression of patriotism.
"It was an expression of the sentiment 'America Now' for me," Lee said. "There's probably some post-9/11 stuff mixed in there. We have a president who is facing really an unprecedented challenge. So my vote was informed by a culmination of all those things.
"I am the first person to admit that it might be premature to honor a sitting president," he said. "But it's quite defensible. We've got schools in Stockton named after Cleveland, Harrison, Garfield, Tyler and Fillmore. These were truly mediocre presidents."
Clarence Chan, a Democratic school board member who opposed the name, sought to keep the controversy in perspective. "It's not so much a partisan thing as it is just not a proper time. He hasn't proven himself yet. He's in the middle of his term," he said.
But to retired Marine Corps Sgt. Richard A. Pittman, the new school names are significant. In about five years, Pittman, the only Stockton resident to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, will see an elementary school in Stockton bearing his name. Pittman was awarded the medal in 1968 for his heroism in the face of enemy fire in Vietnam in July 1966.
"I am absolutely flabbergasted. It's just a great, great honor, and it's right up there with receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor," he said. "I'm just giddy at the possibility of my grandchildren going to a school named after their grandfather."
As for the sitting president who also will be so honored, Pittman said, "I'm surprised that they named a school after a living president. And I'm just as surprised that one of the schools will be named after a Vietnam veteran."