Kathy Dzewaltowski, observer
The board reviewed the district’s pandemic response plan. In October, the board updated the plan and made masks optional at the high school and at district support buildings while continuing mask mandates for buses/district vehicles and at elementary and middle schools. Dr. Marvin Wade, Superintendent, reported that the district’s metrics are doing well with no drastic changes. Last week, 189 students and staff were tested for COVID as part of a strategy to keep kids in school who have been in close contact. Since masks became optional on Nov. 1 at the high school level, one student at MHS West Campus and one student at MHS East Campus have tested positive. Dr. Wade’s recommendation was to continue with the current plan and review the plan on Dec. 17. Brandy Santos said she would like masks to be a choice for students and staff who are vaccinated. Darell Edie wanted to see masks become optional at the middle school level. Karla Hagemeister noted that sixth-graders have only recently become eligible for the vaccine, have had only one dose so far, the second dose would be in December and effective two weeks later. Curt Herrman agreed with following the recommendation of the medical advisory team and noted there aren’t many school days until Dec. 17 (because of Thanksgiving break) when the plan will be next reviewed. Kristin Brighton commented that numbers have been consistent over the past three weeks, and she agreed with continuing the plan. Jurdene Coleman had also hoped masks could become optional at the middle schools but understood the recommendation to wait on that because sixth-graders aren’t fully vaccinated yet. The board approved 5-2 to continue the current pandemic response plan with Ms. Santos and Mr. Edie voting against the motion.
The board held a preliminary discussion about the high school mascot with Ms. Brighton leading the discussion. Board members didn’t plan to take any formal action, so the board did not accept public comment on the topic. Ms. Brighton asked the board to consider three things: do they even want to discuss the mascot again; if yes, do they want to discuss it with the current board or wait until newly elected board members are seated in January 2022; and if the mascot is discussed, what additional information is needed from administration or the public. Board members were each asked to share their views, as well as incoming members Jayme Morris-Hardeman and Christine Weixelman. Ms. Brighton began by noting the Committee for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) had recommended on July 21, 2020, to refrain from the use of humans and human groups as symbols, but the pandemic had needed to be a priority, which is why the board hadn’t previously considered the recommendation.
Katrina Lewison commented that the mascot issue was discussed in 2017, and the decision then had been to keep the name, name the MHS commons area for Frank Prentup, and provide education about Native Americans. CDI didn’t have the opportunity to recommend removing the name because the board had already decided to keep it, but CDI’s recommendation was clear about refraining from using humans or human groups, and the board adopted the recommendation. Yet, MHS is still connected to “Indians,” which is in opposition to CDI’s recommendation. She said the district can’t move forward with parts of the strategic plan and ignore others.
Ms. Morris-Hardeman said one of her core values is to increase diversity and equity, and the use of “Indian” is in conflict with her core values. She would support a new image for MHS.
Ms. Weixelman felt the timing of the discussion was strange because it was occurring at the behest of 1-2 board members and was immediately following a contentious election and at a time of change. It looked to her to be calculating and intended to capitalize on a partisan majority. The issue seemed political to her because one must accept a narrow set of progressive claims about ethnicity and history to conclude the image is offensive, and most of the community doesn’t accept this. She thought framing the issue as unresolved was inaccurate, and it keeps coming up because a few people don’t like the resolutions that were previously arrived at. Her preference was to expand Native American education and take advantage of a unique opportunity for USD 383 to be an innovative leader. She commented that eradication advocates promote cultural genocide, claims that Native American mascots harm students are false, and she cited studies that showed Native American mascots aren’t offensive. She would not take up the discussion.
Ms. Hagemeister said she would take up the discussion, although she wasn’t sure about doing it in the next four weeks. She thought moving on a rapid pace might not be best for the community and could rob the district of the opportunity to find common ground. She noted it would be a challenging conversation, but the board can’t turn away for that reason or because times are hard.
Mr. Herrman said the mascot was a hot topic 16 years ago and again six years ago. The board spent two years on it at the time, and the community overwhelmingly supported keeping it. He thought the mascot was an honor and would keep it. He suggested creating a video to be shown to new students and staff that would explain why MHS is the Indians. His preference was to wait for the new board to be seated to discuss it.
Mr. Edie didn’t want to discuss it, and he noted that if the current board made a decision now, the new board could change it. He mentioned a recent lawsuit in Colorado that was filed as a result of the state’s banning Native American mascots.
Ms. Santos commented that she sees the Indian mascot as an honor but acknowledged she could be wrong. She didn’t think it was a symbol of racism or that “Indian” is a discriminatory word. She understood the perspective of being inclusive but wondered if removing the mascot would be dishonoring. The community has discussed it at length, and she wasn’t sure any progress would be made in uniting the community. She wondered if the current board has satisfied the obligations the last board said it would do. She thought the last board had worked diligently, and if the board takes up the topic again, the board should give the topic its all and take as long as it needs.
Ms. Coleman commented that everything the board does is calculated and thoughtful. She noted a previous board president had brought up the issue, and the board had already agreed to discuss it. The next board can’t always uphold what a previous board did, and she provided the example of when corporal punishment used to be acceptable as something a previous board had established and is no longer upheld. She would like to see the issue revisited because times have changed, but not necessarily with the current board. She was afraid of what the discussion would mean to her professionally and personally if it were discussed now.
Ms. Brighton noted people connected with native nations are divided on the issue, with some seeing it as an honor and others seeing it as derogatory. She serves on CDI and sees the issue will always be hanging over us. 30% of the district’s students aren’t white, and the district should make them feel accepted. One path could be to table the discussion until the board’s retreat in Feb. 2022, and in the meanwhile, put together a working group of past and present board members who would work with both sides to come up with a diplomatic consensus. Ms. Weixelman and Ms. Coleman volunteered to be part of the working group. Ms. Santos wasn’t sure the topic would be the best use of the retreat’s time.
Following their statements, board members continued to discuss whether to take on the topic, and the consensus was to wait until Jan. 2022 to bring it up. Ms. Brighton planned to reach out to both sides of the issue to ask for representatives to serve on the working group. The board also wanted administration to provide updated information about what the costs might be. In the past, expenses such as new team uniforms were mentioned, but as teams have cycled out old uniforms, new uniforms have used a block “M” on them, reducing potential costs.
The board was also provided with a budget update. It was noted that funding for at-risk was a challenge this year. In the past, at-risk students were identified through free and reduced lunch, but with the federal government’s providing funding for all lunches, a household survey had been used instead, which hadn’t resulted in the expected return. In addition, a finance law provision required the district to transfer funds from the supplemental general fund to the at-risk budget, which was viewed as not sustainable.