SKOWHEGAN — With no clear end in sight to the debate over the use of the Indians nickname for sports teams in School Administrative District 54, some school board members said Monday they foresee board action, including the possibility of another vote on the issue, in the coming weeks.

“I do think there will be something one way or another in the next few meetings,” said Skowhegan board member Jennifer Poirier, who supports keeping the name. “I myself feel we voted in 2015, and I don’t think we should have to take another vote. I think the majority of the town wants the name and seal to remain. That vote should be respected unless the Legislature tells us otherwise.”

The board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Thursday for a regular meeting at Skowhegan Area Middle School, where they will discuss any next steps in the process of addressing the Indians name issue.

Debate over whether to use the name, which some have deemed offensive to Native Americans, has dragged on for years. In 2015, the board voted 11-9 to keep the name, though it hardly caused the issue to go away.

“I’ve heard certain board members say they don’t want to spend one more dollar on this, but the choice is simple: either you concede to change or the outside pressure will just keep mounting, and it will just get more ugly, in my opinion,” said Derek Ellis, a Skowhegan school board member who supports changing the name.

Ellis said he is concerned about the financial impact of the debate, which since January 2018 has cost the district $15,500 in legal fees. The cost includes general legal advice, legal costs associated with holding a January forum at which the public was able to offer their opinions to the school board and meetings and consultations with the board’s attorneys regarding the issue, said SAD54 Superintendent Brent Colbry.

Legal costs per issue often vary, according to Colbry, who said the district budgeted $69,536 this year for all legal issues.

SAD 54 includes the communities of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield and has a total budget of around $35.7 million.

Gloria and Ken Gordon of Skowhegan spoke in favor of keeping the Indian mascot in Skowhegan schools during a meeting before school board members on Jan. 8 this year. Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

“At some point there will be a legal challenge,” Ellis said. “When that happens, it gets expensive. Ultimately, I know I don’t want to see that happen as a school board member. I also have a 9-year-old in the system, and I don’t want to see school programming compromised because we’re spending money on legal fees.”

Some members of the 23-person school board contacted Monday expressed reluctance to take a stance on the issue or say what they think will happen next.

Others said the board is poised for action, though whether it will settle the matter for good remains to be seen.

“That would be my guess, yes (that we will vote again soon),” said board member Goff French, of Smithfield. “When? I don’t know. I assume there will be some kind of vote coming up sometime soon.”

School board Chair Dixie Ring, of Canaan, declined to comment Monday, and Vice Chair Maryellen Charles said only that the board will be talking about the issue Thursday, but she wasn’t sure what the outcome might be.

Ellis said he anticipates the board voting Thursday to have another meeting, at which they can express their opinions and the public can come listen.

“At this point, my feeling is something is going to happen,” he said. “There’s just continued relentless pressure from all over the place. I’ve been getting emails nonstop from the community. I think what you will find is something is going to happen.”

Fellow Skowhegan board member Lynda Quinn also said she would like to see something similar: a workshop open to the public where board members can talk among themselves and ask questions.

Quinn, who supports keeping the name, said she does not understand why the word “Indians” is offensive and does not like people from outside the school district weighing in on the issue.

“Most (school board members) have not been vocal,” she said. “I think everyone’s in listening mode. Now I think it’s time to have a discussion among ourselves, not privately and not take questions from the public. That’s been done. It’s been overdone. Now we need to talk.”

As the board weighs its next steps, Rep. Benjamin T. Collings, D-Portland, is sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal for schools to use names, symbols or images referencing Native Americans as mascots, nicknames or logos.

Poirier, who also organized a visit on Sunday by an out-of-state group supporting the Indians name, said she doesn’t see it changing in SAD 54 unless the Legislature moves forward with the bill or other action.

“My opinion is if it’s chosen we remain the Indians, again, as it has been, and how I believe the majority feels. I think the changers will continue to harass the school because they don’t agree with them,” Poirier said.

The same could also be said of those who want to keep the name, said board member Theresa Howard, also of Skowhegan.

“I honestly don’t know what it will take,” said Howard, who supports a change and voted three years ago to do so. “If we were to do it again, the side who felt like they lost would bring it up again. If we vote to change, the people who would like it to stay will bring it up again and vice versa.

“I feel like I don’t know what the answer is to put it to rest. No matter what, change is hard for people, or the thought of change. I think there would always be folks who would bring it up again.”

 

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
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Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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