SKOWHEGAN — Although many members of the School Administrative District 54 Board of Directors have their own thoughts on what the district should choose as its new nickname, most are saying that what the students want is most important when making a final decision.

The board will vote at its regular meeting Oct. 8. The three finalists are Phoenix, River Hawks, or to remain Skowhegan.

The board’s Education Policy/Program and its Support Services committees convened separately Tuesday evening to review the feedback given by students on the nine options that were provided.

“I’ve said all along that what the students pick is what the students pick,” committee member Derek Ellis said. “The overwhelming majority of the kids want something to rally behind, but out of respect for the system, that is how the students voted.”

But member Jennifer Poirier expressed some concerns that members of the community have with the possible selection of Phoenix; first, that Spruce Mountain High School’s mascot is also the Phoenix; and second, from the discussion on a Facebook thread that suggested potential controversy a few years down the line.

“There’s been some discussion on Facebook about how we should not go with (Phoenix) because it is a Greek mythical bird,” Poirier said. “It went on and on and on, and we do not want more controversy than this.”

Last week, Superintendent Jon Moody presented the board with a chart of the results of the student vote on the nine options presented to them. Students in grades six through 12 were asked to pick their top choice and rank their top three choices. Moody said that out of the roughly 1,050 students able to vote, 731 — or about 70% — participated.

Phoenix was the top choice, at 21.9%, followed by River Hawks at 21.5%; Skowhegan, 19.3%; Thunder, 12%; Trailblazers, 7.5%; Badgers, 5.9%; River Drivers, 4.4%; Sturgeon, 4.1%; and Fisher Cats, 3.4%.

The process of soliciting ideas for a new team name began Jan. 15 with a multi-step process after the “Indians” nickname was retired, a controversy that has spanned several years as the school board first voted to keep the name and then later reversed that decision. Critics of the old nickname, including Native Americans living in the region, said it was demeaning to have a sports mascot named after their ethnicity.

Skowhegan was the only public school in Maine holding onto a Native American sports nickname, after other schools had previously dropped theirs in favor of new ones. State officials later weighed in as well, with Maine Gov. Janet Mills encouraging the SAD 54 board to discontinue use of the nickname.

The mascot selection process was temporarily halted because of the coronavirus pandemic and resumed in early summer. Both the board’s Support Services and its Education Policy/Program committees narrowed the options down to a list of nine.

The list was then given to students, who voted on the options through their school email portal. At the Sept. 17 board of directors meeting, the results of the student survey were provided to board members. One member suggested fast-forwarding the process and considering narrowing the list to three then, but Moody suggested seeing the process through, so that if community members wish to attend the rest of the meetings, they can.

On Tuesday evening, both subcommittees convened separately at Skowhegan Area Middle School, where each group assessed the results of the student survey. Since the committees met in two separate rooms and not all 23 members were present, it is not considered a regular school board meeting, though the public is allowed to attend. The public was not able to weigh in as that step of the process has passed.

In the gymnasium, the Education Policy/Program Committee’s meeting was brief, with the majority of the room saying that though they personally do not want the no-mascot option to go to the board for the final vote (just “Skowhegan”), it should still remain on the list of three that they need to present alongside the other committee because it was the third choice that students voted on.

“I do not consider (Skowhegan) a mascot at all,” committee member Peggy Lovejoy said. Lovejoy ultimately voted with the rest of the committee to allow the top three options to go to the board and added that she just wanted to make sure her remarks were on the record.

Assistant Superintendent Mark Hatch, who was helping to moderate the meeting, suggested holding off on conversations of what the final decision should be until the final vote.

“It might be a good conversation to have as a full board,” Hatch said.

Jeannie Conley also spoke up in favor of moving the top three options forward. “When push comes to shove, we’re all going to vote for one,” Conley said.

The general consensus in each meeting was that the board as a whole should stick with what the students wanted.

“We were pretty clear with the community that students would not have the final voice, but we would certainly be listening to the students,” Amy Rouse said.

Across the hall in the cafeteria, members of the Support Services Committee expressed their own thoughts and took more time with their dialogue, but came to the same consensus as the other group.

“It’s all about the kids,” member Kathy Wilder said. “I ran (to be) on this board because of the kids. It’s about their education, their future and I think we need to look long-term down the road. I am adamantly opposed to keeping it Skowhegan. We need to move on and put this behind us.”

Member Todd Smith highlighted a previous meeting, where members said they wanted to select something that was unique.

“Whatever it is, it is going to be Skowhegan-something,” Smith said. “I would certainly push to have (just) Skowhegan remain an option (for the board vote.)”

Member Goff French also expressed that the top three choices made by students should be the final options.

“It’s what the students voted on, and they would be upset if we went with something else,” French said, adding that: “It’s important to have a mascot. Something about having a mascot to cheer along with is important.”

Subcommittee member and school board Chairperson Lynda Quinn said that if it were her choice, she would prefer to remain just Skowhegan, though voting with what the students want is more important.

“If the kids are going to get behind something, and they’re getting behind Phoenix, we need to honor that. Otherwise, why would we have bothered to ask what they wanted if we were going to pick something else?” Quinn said.

Member Harold Bigelow expressed his thoughts on the mascot, putting an emphasis on leaving Skowhegan an option for board consideration.

“We’re putting a lot of reliance on kids,” Bigelow said. “You’ve got a lot of people there that are listening to us, we ought to really consider that. These children are swayed a lot by their parents. It’s not fair for the (board) to rely so heavy on the kids.”

Bigelow defended this point, saying that taxpayers and donors are important when it comes to having the final say.

“We’re voted on by the town, and they remind us of that all the time,” Bigelow said. “The people that pay taxes and have (worked at sporting events) ought to weigh in heavily. The kids should have a say. I really think that their say is valuable, but everybody is talking about this now and a lot of our heavy donators are looking at this.”

Wilder also said that being a resident of Norridgewock, selecting to remain “Skowhegan” wouldn’t be representative of all towns that make up the district, which also serves Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan. At previous meetings, member Sarah Bunker has shared similar concerns.

“It doesn’t seem representative to have it be just Skowhegan,” Wilder said “It doesn’t seem fair to call everybody (Skowhegan.)”

Moody reminded the board that the goal was to establish three final names. Members questioned whether they would be allowed to have discussions with the entire group on the night of the final vote, and Quinn said that this would happen.

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