Waukesha panel not yet in tune with middle school name change

Scott Ash
The Waukesha School Board is considering changing Central Middle School's name. Three options are being considered, all with some connection to music icon and Waukesha native Les Paul.
Published on: 5/19/2014

It's not fully back to the drawing board in the process to rename Central Middle School.

But changing the middle school's name to Les Paul Middle School or some version of it will have to wait another day after the Waukesha School Board held off on a decision May 14. The renaming process will now return to the committee level to be further discussed.

Two days earlier, the Finance and Facilities Committee had recommended changing Central's name to Les Paul Middle School, the original request of the Les Paul Foundation, an organization that supports music education, engineering, innovation and medical research.

But at the subsequent School Board meeting, the discussion quickly turned to keeping "Central" in the school's name.

The basis of the opposition is tied to the school's history and place in the district.

Central Middle School, located at 400 N. Grand Ave. just outside of downtown Waukesha, is the oldest facility in the school district. Its campus buildings previously served as the district's junior and senior high schools and became Central Middle School in 1993 when Waukesha West High School opened.

Deeper thinking

With the board now weighing the names "Les Paul Middle School," "Les Paul Central Middle School" and "Les Paul Middle School-Central Campus," Superintendent Todd Gray urged the board "to keep it as clean as possible."

Gray preferred to present these new options to the committees that have been at the center of the discussions.

School Board President Joseph Como acknowledged the need for more thorough consideration.

"We're back to ground zero," Como said. "This is a sensitive and important decision. Some people might think 'What's the big deal of naming a school?' It's a very important decision to be made and I'm glad we don't run through it quickly."

The committees that discussed the name change were spearheaded by Gray and Central Middle School Principal Rob Bennett, who met with staff and community members. Both committees recommended changing the school's name to Les Paul Middle School.

More creative approach

However, school board member Ellen Langill, who was on Gray's committee, said she has received dozens of calls from people against the change.

"There's just a real hardcore opposition to this," said Langill, who added she has been getting calls from the Class of 1945 on this issue. "People feel very strongly about Central Middle School."

Langill suggested that incorporating more of Paul's ideas into the schools could be a better way to honor the man known as "The Wizard of Waukesha."

"What I'd like to see us do is be a little more creative," Langill said. "What came up from the meetings were a lot of ideas around the legacy of Les Paul. I think there might be some opportunities to go back to some ideas the committee had and look at his legacy in terms of inspiring our music education — not just at Central but across our district."

Historical connection

Paul, the famous musician and inventor who was born and is buried in Waukesha, attended Central when it was called Waukesha Junior High and Waukesha High School.

Sue Baker, the foundation's program director and a close friend of Paul during the later years of his life, was the catalyst locally to have the school's name changed.

She wasn't sure if keeping some form of "Central" in the name would be OK with the foundation. The name change is subject to the foundation's approval.

"I don't have my board here," Baker said at last week's meeting. "I'm kind of stuck. I can't give you a response. The board never talked about Central campus. I honestly don't know if it would be an issue or not an issue."

If the name change is accepted, the Les Paul Foundation has agreed to cover 100 percent of the costs that would come with changing a school's name. Gray said he hasn't gotten final cost estimates yet.

Inspiring others

Baker said having Les Paul as the school's name could be inspiring to students.

"I think if we can name Central Middle School, Les Paul Middle School we can use him as a role model," Baker said. "And children who not only go to that school, but all the schools in our city can say 'Gee, here's a kid that grew up in a poor family, and a kid who had just a mom and look what he did. He went to my school, he walked the hallways that I walked, he performed on stages in my school and look what he became. Maybe I can be like Les Paul.'"