These are polarizing times in the public arena, marked by political rancor and divisiveness, but who knew the mood trickled all the way down to the naming of an El Cerrito public school?

At stake is whether Portola Middle School, which since its inception has honored 18th century Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola -- the first European to set eyes on San Francisco Bay -- should be renamed for Fred T. Korematsu, an Oakland-born Japanese-American who defied federal internment orders during World War II.

Opposing sides have laid out their arguments before a committee assembled by the West Contra Costa Unified School District across four meetings, suggesting that this is either a very important issue or West County residents have time on their hands.

Lee Pollard, architect with HY Architects, shows some of the features of the new campus as construction continues on the new Portola Middle School in El
Lee Pollard, architect with HY Architects, shows some of the features of the new campus as construction continues on the new Portola Middle School in El Cerrito, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. The new campus will feature several new buildings along with some drastically renovated structures. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Portola, supporters say, was the choice of students in a naming contest 63 years ago in recognition of the region's Spanish ancestry, right down to the school's nickname of Conquistadors. Korematsu, others claim, is a more admirable figure -- a fearless civil-rights activist who in 1998 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The distinction is important to those who believe students are inspired by the attributes embodied by the name on a school building. It makes you wonder why it isn't renamed for Nelson Mandela. He spent as much time living in El Cerrito as Portola or Korematsu.


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Of as much interest as the debate is the timing -- 70 years after internment ended, 16 years after Korematsu's award and nine years after his death. If there's logic to this proposal at this time, it awaits discovery. I assumed it was because the school is moving into a new facility in 2015 -- new building, new name. Not so, school board President Charles Ramsey said: "It may have prompted some of the conversation, but the building's been in construction for over a year."

He said the idea emerged in a conversation with Jim Ghidella, an El Cerrito resident who chairs the renaming committee and believes the internment of Japanese-Americans is a tragic story that has been inadequately told.

"The discussion came up with Charles Ramsey at breakfast one morning, and it was also his idea," Ghidella said. So, you see, it was serendipity.

El Cerrito resident Ray Dennen, who finds no reason for change, believes more is at work. He thinks Ramsey, a Richmond mayoral candidate, is angling for political gain with the city's Japanese-American electorate.

"It reeks to high heaven," Dennen said.

Ramsey said the committee, of which he's a member, entertained other names, such as Sundar Shadi, whose elaborate nativity scenes and gardens graced the community for 50 years, and Philip Lee, the town's first mayor. He said it also considered arguments for leaving the name unchanged, which seems unlikely for a group called the Portola Renaming Committee.

Ramsey and Ghidella downplay reports of community friction. Ghidella said the feedback he's received reflects a "legion of support" for renaming the school for Korematsu. He must not have spent much time on the district's website, where 27 of 57 comments I saw were in opposition, some adamantly ("This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard of").

With public outreach completed, the committee will ask trustees on July 9 to rename the school for Korematsu. Whatever the verdict, one thing is certain: There will be rancor and friction.

That's the way of things these days for issues large and small.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com