SKOWHEGAN — A modest 3% increase in school spending for the coming year doesn’t seem to bother anyone in School Administrative District 54, but there is a rumored plot to scuttle the budget because of recent votes to get rid of the “Indians” nickname for school sports teams.

A public information meeting on the proposed $36,767,926 school budget for the coming year is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Skowhegan Area Middle School cafeteria. That session is to be followed by the regular SAD 54 board meeting when warrants are to be approved and signed for the district budget meeting May 20 and validation vote by referendum June 11.

Directors voted 14-9 in March to “respectfully retire” the nickname “Indians” for all schools in the Skowhegan district, making it the last in Maine to end the use of Native American nicknames and imagery for its sports teams.

Members of a closed Facebook group called Skowhegan Indian Pride, who wanted to keep the nickname, argued their side of the issue wasn’t being heard. They pressed the school board to put a nonbinding advisory question or survey on the June referendum ballot.

The school board rejected that idea April 25, saying such a vote would undermine the authority of the elected school board.

Morrigan Knox McLeod, far right, holds red cards and wears a red shirt with other supporters to retire the Indian nickname during a school board meeting in Skowhegan on April 25. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

The Maine Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would prohibit public schools and colleges from using depictions of Native Americans as mascots following a similar vote in the Maine House last week. The bill is expected to reach the desk of Maine Gov. Janet Mills for her signature in the coming days.

The bill, L.D. 944, prohibits any public school or college in Maine from adopting “a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to a Native American tribe, individual, custom or tradition” for use as a mascot, logo, nickname or team name, as well as on letterhead.

SAD 54 Chairwoman Dixie Ring, who voted with the majority to drop the nickname and reject the referendum vote, said she is aware of the rumors of plans to defeat the budget.

“They are not thinking about what is best for the kids,” she said Wednesday.

School board member Derek Ellis, who also voted to retire the “Indians” mascot, said he, too, is aware of rallies held in support of defeating the school budget.

“It is this same group of people that have said repeatedly, ‘No vote … no budget,'” Ellis said. “I have read that statement on their protest signs and heard them say it repeatedly. From my understanding, this small group plans to stifle the budget for the upcoming school year due to their dissatisfaction with certain school board members and our collective decision to retire the mascot. It’s unfortunate if this is the case. It will be our students and staff that suffer if this group gains any traction.”

Todd Smith, a school board member who voted to keep the “Indians” name, said Wednesday that he was unaware of any plan to reject the budget because of previous “Indians” votes by the board.

Jennifer Poirier, a school board member and Skowhegan Indian Pride founder, said Wednesday she has backed off the discussion and referred all inquiries to two non-school board members, Michelle Lewis and Derek Chretien, neither of whom could be reached for comment Wednesday.

SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry said he has heard the rumors but can not understand anyone not liking the proposed budget, with a local assessment of  just 0.22% over the current year and state aid at $20,753,958. The school board approved the budget April 25, setting the stage for Thursday’s informational meeting.

Colbry said there is no financial reason to oppose the budget.

SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry

The district is comprised of six towns: Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

Colbry said the school board has budgeted $69,536 this year for the handling of all legal issues, the same as was approved last year.

“We left it the same because that covers everything that we do — negotiations, legal issues, those kind of things,” he said.

Since January 2018, having an attorney for legal issues, including the retirement of the “Indians” nickname for sports teams, 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 with the district’s lawyer present, and meetings and consultations with the board’s attorney.

Colbry has said there hasn’t been any formal discussion on what a new mascot might look like or be called. He has said the biggest issue facing the board and the district has been hammering out a final budget for the upcoming year.

Colbry said the overall wage increase in the proposed budget comes in at 2.77%. There are increases in unemployment rates, utility costs, contracted services and Maine State Retirement costs totaling $183,748.

The proposed budget also includes an additional 1.6 special education teachers and four special education ed techs.

“The big change is that we now know our health insurance costs — zero increase,” Colbry said Wednesday. “That was the big unknown. This is an excellent budget.”

Spending lines in the proposed budget include:

• Regular instruction — $13,090,434, up 2.92%
• Special education — $8,474,144, up 3.91%
• Career and technical education — $1,638,377, up 6.27%
• Student and staff support — $2,861,629, up 2.96%
• System administration — $715,450, up 2.49%
• School administration — $1,692,878, up 2.8%
• Transportation and buses — $2,139,735, up 2.15%
• Facilities maintenance — $3,315,951, up 3.4%
• Debt service — $1,977,846, down 2.29%

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