Proposed HSPVA Name Change Not Greeted by a Standing Ovation [UPDATED]

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Does a high school dedicated to the arts really need to be named after a successful businessman? Even if that businessman pays for the right to do so?

That’s just one of the questions Houston ISD parent Ann Eagleton has for the district after it announced plans to rename the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts – usually referred to as HSPVA – the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (KHSPVA, anyone?)

Last November trustees approved a policy that if anyone donated $7.5 million to a school, the board could decide to rename the school after that person. Really. Not making this up.

So when Rich and Nancy Kinder decided to chip in $7.5 million through their Kinder Foundation to help the acclaimed high school make its long-awaited move to a downtown campus, trustees cleared the way to change the name – clunkiness be damned. New superintendent Richard Carranza, understandably, greeted the donation news with great happiness.

“With this donation, the Kinder Foundation is sending a strong message to our children that Houston is a city that recognizes the critical role that the arts play in every student’s education,” he was quoted as saying on the HISD website. Plans are to open the new 168,000-square-foot school in the third quarter of 2018.

Alas, as HISD trustees should know by now (see renaming schools to remove Confederate association references earlier this year), renaming a school never seems to go smoothly. Now Eagleton is poking the bear in a response certainly not anticipated by Houston ISD officials in the days leading up to this Thursday night’s vote on the measure.

“The idea that you announce that you’re changing the name of a well-known high school on a Friday and the vote’s on a Thursday without any community input, that just seems wrong to me,” she said in a phone interview.

“I was shocked that we would sell school naming rights after the shenanigan of Lanier,” said Eagleton, who thinks the name should stay what it is. (“It is a brand that is known. They were the original performing arts high school.”) Or be named after Ruth Denney, who worked hard to start the school. And just name the auditorium after Kinder.

Eagleton also believes HISD set its price tag way too low. “Tillman Fertitta is donating $20 million of the $60 million needed for the new University of Houston athletic center,” she wrote in a letter to the board. “Gus Wortham donated $20 million for the $66 million needed to build the Wortham Center. The Hobby family donated $15 million of the $88 million needed for the Hobby Center.”

“The Kinders are donating $7.5 million of a $90.2 million project ($80.2 M from the bond + 10M from HSPVA Friends)… The donation rate in the projects I listed ranged from 17 % - 33%,” she wrote. “The Kinders are coming in at 8 %. The board would be setting a bad precedent if they approve this.”

Eagleton said her son who went to HSPVA did a brief survey of his friends who are recent graduates. “None of them are supportive of the name change and they think HISD is selling out.”

In the end, Eagleton doesn’t sound like someone who will achieve ultimate victory. “My goal is just to slow it. I’m hoping we can just put off the vote so there can be a real conversation and real transparency and for us to understand.

"I know the arts requires a lot of funding from the business community and I’m happy to honor them in all sorts of ways, but to me, a high school, that’s different to me.”

Update 1:15 p.m. Trustee Harvin Moore weighs in. 

HISD trustee Harvin Moore called us to express his thoughts about the renaming of the school, saying that while he respected Eagleton's opinion, he disagreed with her about how much money HISD could reasonably expect to get in the renaming process. He also expressed dismay that a negative reaction to the Kinder Foundation offer could hurt the school district's efforts in the philanthropic community in the future. 

“There is indeed a great deal known about how naming rights work and how they are priced. Most of what we have learned is from the nonprofit world and from symphonies and opera houses and things like that. And also from universities,” said Moore. “Those institutions have been doing this for a very long time. They did not get top dollar the first time they named something. Higher naming right fees come from a long process of trust-building and years of experience where hopefully the prices go up over time as people are able to see more successful naming experiences.

“The problem here is first, school districts have very rarely done this, so there is very little historical precedent and Houston has never sold a school name before, even though for years we have talked about it positively as a board," Moore said. "In Houston recently, HISD has lost a fair amount of trust in the community and in the philanthropic community because of instability in its governance and that also acts to reduce the price that you can get for naming rights.

“This is a very unique opportunity to begin a relationship of trust with the philanthropic community and if it’s done right and graciously, then I think we can look forward to more opportunities which are always in the power of the board to reject and to negotiate. But if this opportunity results in hateful speech and a rejection from arguably the most respected philanthropist in Houston, there’s a good chance we’ll lose enough credibility that we won’t get this gift or any other gifts for quite a long time, and I think that would be a tragedy and a move really in the opposite direction than the direction we should be moving in.”

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