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U46 School Board renames Sheridan School after Ron O’Neal

Sheridan Elementary School Elgwill have new name as July 1  -  Ronald D. O’Neal Elementary School. | Sun-Times

Sheridan Elementary School in Elgin will have a new name as of July 1 - Ronald D. O’Neal Elementary School. | Sun-Times Media file

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Updated: February 16, 2014 6:20AM

ELGIN — Sheridan Elementary School is getting a new name, over the objections of some residents and one School District U46 board member.

As of July 1, the school on Elgin’s near-east side will become Ronald D. O’Neal Elementary School.

The board voted Monday night to rename the school in honor of U46’s first African-American administrator, who was principal of Sheridan when the current building opened in 1973 and later became principal at Larsen Middle School and Elgin High School. He died in 2009.

O’Neal’s daughter, Traci O’Neal Ellis, is now a member of the school board but has said she had no role in pushing for the name change. The change was proposed last year by retired U46 administrator Gus Vaughan.

It was the first time in some 50 years that U46 has named a school after a local person. Most schools are named after generic geographic features or subdivisions, or after nationally known figures such as Sheridan.

During the 1950s, however, most schools were named after well-known local educators or pioneers, including all four of the middle schools inside the city of Elgin.

The school’s predecessor was erected in 1888 at Ann and Hill streets. At first called Hill Street School, in 1898 it was renamed after Philip Sheridan, a Civil War general who has no known connection to the Elgin area. That building was torn down in 1973 and replaced by a new building on the adjacent block, which also was named after Gen. Sheridan.

Expense cited

The final vote on Monday was 4-0 in favor of the renaming. O’Neal Ellis abstained because of the family connection; board member Maria Bidelman was absent; and board member Frank Napolitano, who was out of the board room when the vote was taken, later said he would have voted “no.”

Napolitano told a reporter that he has nothing against O’Neal’s memory but sees the renaming as a needless expense. U46 Chief of Staff Tony Sanders told the board before the vote that the cost to the taxpayers of changing signs, floor mats, etc. from “Sheridan” to “O’Neal” is uncertain but would be less than $5,000.

“It’s not a large expense. But $5,000 could buy laptops, or gasoline,” Napolitano said after the meeting. Besides those district expenses, he added, the need to buy “spirit ware” with the new name also imposes an “unfair expense” on parents whose children already may have clothing with “Sheridan” written on it.

Last fall, a public hearing and invitation to solicit written comments drew 145 statements from the public. Just 24 argued against the name change, with almost all the others praising O’Neal’s impact on students and urging that the change go through. One former student who had grown up to become an Elgin police officer said O’Neal’s guidance had changed his life.

Sanders reported that since the issue was discussed by the board at its December meeting and the issue was publicized in The Courier-News, 11 more comments have come in, this time almost all opposing the change.

Change allowed

Former Elginite Walt Reed wrote that he grew up playing on the old Sheridan School grounds 60 years ago. “All of the neighborhood children ... cherish the old school and its name as not only a tradition but as an icon institution. ... What’s next, changing the name of the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument?” Reed wrote.

“There are other ways to honor people. Besides, it starts a precedent, and one day no school will have its original (name),” wrote Linda Palicke.

“I do not know who Ron O’Neal was, but the world has become so politicized that I believe the system is better off leaving the names as they are or renaming schools after those of character in the large community,” wrote 1963 Elgin High grad Sharon Alexander.

Some commenters claimed the school board years ago had adopted a policy of never naming a school after a former teacher, district employee or board member. But Sanders said the current official policy on school naming would not rule out renaming the school after any person, so long as they are no longer alive, and public comments are considered.

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