Legislation, funding required for name change

Joanna Chait

Many additional steps remain to finalize the proposed name change from Woodrow Wilson to August Wilson High School. 

Although the process is not totally clear, to move forward with the change, the mayor must  send legislation to the council. This is partly because Wilson is the first school to undergo the new name-change process. Although it is not finalized yet, with keeping “Wilson,” the name of the school would colloquially remain the same.

“Our reputation nationally is Wilson High School [in DC]; that’s not changing,” Principal Kimberly Martin said. 

Once the proposal is approved, Martin and a representative from DCPS Central Office will start officially changing the school’s name with its partnerships such as College Board, Naviance, and Common Application. Some community members have previously raised concerns on whether changing the name of the school will make it unrecognizable to college officials. Regardless, the school number is used as identification by these connections as well; it will remain the same. 

“Our school number is far more significant than our school name; we just need to make sure that our school number is aligned with our new school name,” Martin said. 

Although, some signage labeled “Woodrow Wilson,” such as the lettering in the front of the school, the sign on Chesapeake Street, and even the “Woodrow Wilson High School, Home of the Tigers” sign, will be replaced starting in the fall. 

Before any physical items bearing the current name can be changed, the DC Council must approve legislation to officially change the name of the school. 

The council is awaiting a piece of legislation, either a resolution or a bill from the mayor, to formally change the name. 

The difference between the two options is that bills that are passed by the council have a Fiscal Impact Statement (FIS), an analysis by the Chief Financial Officer that says how expensive it will be to implement a bill. As a result, it is more likely that the mayor will submit a bill to the council. 

 The renaming process has been described as “uncharted territory”, as Wilson will be the first school to experience a name-change under the new renaming process created by DCPS. 

“Once the official public survey portion closed we had to analyze the data, and that had to go through a decision-making process,” said DCPS Deputy Chief of Communications Elizabeth Bartolomeo. 

After DCPS selected August Wilson as the name, the organization’s lawyers worked with August Wilson’s estate. DCPS provided an overview of the engagement process, the results of the community survey, the history of the school, and why they proposed to change the name of the school, to the estate. 

Bartolomeo does not think DCPS needed to acquire any rights to name the school after August Wilson. “Our legal team wanted to touch base and make sure there was no violation of any rules the estate might have,” she said adding that, “the estate had no play in this decision.” 

 The process outlined by DCPS focused on community, rather than council involvement. Members of the council were invited to participate in the community engagement opportunities, just as residents were. 

Ward Five Councilmember and Wilson alumnus Kenyan McDuffie is heavily involved in the campaign to change the name.“I was not contacted directly. I don’t recall receiving anything specifically from DCPS,” he said. 

 Not all council members agree to vote in favor of changing the name to August Wilson. Some feel that the new name of the school should go farther than merely replacing one “Wilson” with another. 

McDuffie said, “With the information that is currently available to me, I do not support changing the name to August Wilson.” 

DCPS still has the authority to change a school name, even if the council does not approve the legislation from the mayor. 

However, as stated in the last resolution passed by the DC Council in September 2020, The Council would approve a resolution to officially change Wilson’s name. DCPS changing the name without the council’s support would go against the new process they had hoped to adopt for all schools moving forward.

Still, Martin pointed out that she has “yet to see the mayor make a decision and the council outright not go with that decision.”

Last year, DCPS did a walk-through of the school, compiling a list of every item labeled with just “Wilson,” not “Woodrow.” Their total estimation was that replacing all signage would cost around $1.2 million; maintaining the name “Wilson” saves money. 

According to the itemized list from DCPS, there are still some recognizable items that have “Woodrow Wilson” in need of replacement. The bronze “Woodrow Wilson High School” lettering above the front entrance is estimated to cost $50,000. The atrium floor could cost up to $200,000 to replace. The limestone wall at Chesapeake and Nebraska is estimated to cost $100,000. 

Other items that need to be replaced are the electronic sign in the front of the school, and a mural of Woodrow Wilson’s face in the entrance of the school. 

According to information provided by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, “In terms of the fiscal analysis, we would review the proposed legislation as to whether there is [a] budget in the agency to make the name change.”

The money needed to support the name change is likely to come from property taxes, sales taxes, and fees collected by the DC government. There is no direct or external funding set aside for Wilson’s name change. Exactly where the money is coming from and how much the name-change will cost remains largely unknown to Martin and even councilmember Mary Cheh’s staff. 

The money will only be accessible starting October 1; physical changes to the building will have to wait until then.