What would Jan do?

How a popular teacher’s death led to controversy

That’s a question worth asking following Jan Doney’s death and the mini-controversy that has ensued in its wake.

Doney, who died on Feb. 21, at the age of 59, from stomach cancer, was for many years a much-beloved teacher at Chico’s Marigold Elementary School. She was the music and fine-arts specialist, which means she spent her work week going from classroom to classroom, encouraging students to make music or art with her.

The result was that every child at Marigold knew her. Two of my own kids were once her students, so I speak from experience when I say that any day Mrs. Doney was visiting was a special day.

Earlier this school year, she was selected as CUSD elementary teacher of the year, for which she was to be honored at the Education Hall of Fame banquet March 10. When she died, however, a number of her many friends wanted her to be considered for an additional honor—having the new performing-arts center at Pleasant Valley High School named after her.

Unfortunately, the timing was bad. Four days before she died, on Feb. 17, the district’s Board of Trustees accepted the final recommendations of its naming committee for the center and disbanded the committee. It put off making a final decision on the name until a later date.

When an e-mail came in on Feb. 22 recommending the PAC be named after Doney, a responding e-mail memo went out two days later from Mike Weissenborn, the district’s facilities planner and construction manager. It begins gently, by acknowledging that the recommendation was “heartfelt” and that “the community has lost a great individual who had a positive influence on the education and the lives of many students.” Then it goes on to explain the decisions made at the Feb. 17 meeting, adding that no additional names were being considered at the time.

This upset some people. I’m told they saw the memo as bureaucratic and insensitive. One person wrote to the Enterprise-Record protesting that the board had “refused to consider [Doney’s] name” for the new PAC.

As it turns out, Weissenborn’s memo was actually written by board President Jann Reed and sent out over his name—with his permission—because of his central role in building the PAC.

Now that it’s become controversial, Reed said in a recent phone interview, “I want to take full responsibility for it.” As someone who knew and cared for Doney, she felt deep compassion as she wrote it, she said, but she also felt obliged to explain the situation clearly.

The board isn’t bound to its committee’s recommendations, she added: “At some time in the future we’ll again look at the names in light of what has happened since.”

So, what would Jan Doney do? Frankly, I don’t think she would care whether the building was named after her. She wasn’t that kind of person. Life for her was about making connections—with people, with nature, with her God—not getting recognition. If she had a desire to be remembered, it was in the hearts of her family, her friends and her hundreds of former students.