The Northfield School Board is moving to rename Sibley Elementary School as part of a broader policy change that would ban the naming district buildings after individuals.

A first reading of the proposed change took place Monday during a board meeting. Final approval could come next month. Under the policy, schools could only be named for the areas where they are located, including neighborhoods, townships and natural features. Sibley and Longfellow schools would also need to be renamed in the next 12 months.

A controversial name

The first Minnesota governor and namesake for Sibley Elementary School in Northfield, Henry Hastings Sibley played a role in the trial and execution of 38 Dakota Indians in Mankato following the 1862 war in southern Minnesota.

Prior to the board meeting, more than a half dozen district parents wrote statements to the board supporting changing the name of Sibley Elementary School.

Parent Michael Pursell, who has two children enrolled at Sibley Elementary, called the proposed name change “long overdue.” Though Sibley was celebrated for his involvement in government, Pursell called him a “brutal enforcer of broken treaties.”

To fellow parent Kristin O’Connell, the school name doesn’t reflect Northfielders.

School Board member Jeff Quinnell noted 42% of Big Nine Conference elementary schools are named after U.S. presidents and 35% are considered generic. Though declining to defend Sibley’s behavior, he said he is more interested in ensuring the process includes sufficient transparency and fairness.

“I’m not sure why we need one now,” he said of renaming Sibley Elementary.

At one point, Quinnell suggested waiting to enact any changes until after November’s election as board members Ellen Iverson and Noel Stratmoen seek reelection and Rob Hardy isn’t looking for another term. Quinnell also spoke of possibly offering an informal public poll.

Should the policy pass, Superintendent Matt Hillmann said there will be a long enough process to ensure sufficient outreach takes while setting an end date.

In supporting the name change, School Board member Rob Hardy described Sibley’s history as a fur trader and the part he played in past injustices against Native Americans. To Hardy, though some history lessons offered in schools illustrate Sibley’s positive work, such instruction hasn’t adequately spotlighted his misdeeds. He believes that continuing to have Sibley be the namesake for the school would show the district values his contributions more than the devastation he wrought. Even though Hardy he has been asked to change the school’s name since he was elected, he doesn’t support renaming the school in honor of well-known people with Northfield ties so one individual isn’t elevated above others.

Fellow School Board member Tom Baraniak said the danger of naming buildings after one person has become apparent.

“If not now, then when?” he asked of changing the name.

Chair Julie Pritchard said the change would rectify the district’s previous decision to name Sibley Elementary School and serve as a reminder of Northfield’s commitment to inclusivity and acceptance of students of all backgrounds.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Michael Pursell. His quote was: "He was a brutal enforcer of broken treaties." 

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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