Skowhegan Area High School cheerleaders stand on Jan. 15 beneath the Indian mural on the wall of the school’s gymnasium. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

SKOWHEGAN — In the weeks leading up to the landmark decision by the Skowhegan area school board to retire the “Indians” nickname, officials were bombarded with nearly 200 opinions, offerings of scholarly academic research and data on the topic, and pressure to hold a referendum vote so residents could have the final say.

Amid all this, School Administrative District 54 board members and the superintendent also wrestled with thorny questions of potential lawsuits, legal costs and rumors of “secret” meetings, and concerns that one board member was trying actively to undercut the board’s ultimate decision to “respectfully retire” the name.

That’s all according to emails obtained by the Morning Sentinel through a Freedom of Access Act request.

The public records, totaling more than 250 pages, shed light on the tumultuous time period that culminated with the board’s decision a month ago to drop the “Indians” name, a process that’s only just begun as officials continue to discuss the details and timeline for doing so. Meanwhile, supporters of the nickname continue to resist the board vote publicly, even though lawmakers are moving along a bill that would ban the use of Native American-themed mascots in Maine’s public schools.

On Thursday night, board members agreed to decide at their next meeting whether to schedule a nonbinding public referendum on the issue. This has followed pressure from “Indians” nickname supporters who feel disenfranchised by the board’s decision, which they say is being driven by “outsiders.”

Quotes taken from SAD 54 board member emails

Debate over whether to change the name has carried on since at least 2015, when the board voted 11-9 to keep the name. Officials at the time predicted correctly the vote wouldn’t be the final say on the highly emotional issue.

On March 7, the district school board voted again, this time 14-9 to change the name.

 

A DIVISIVE ISSUE 

Before the landmark vote in March, the school district’s 23 board members grappled with the divisive nature of the issue as they were deluged with opinions.

Brent Colbry, superintendent of School Administrative District 54, listens to community discussion Thursday during a school board meeting at Skowhegan Middle School. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

That divisiveness manifested within the board as well, and board members struggled over how to approach the issue among themselves. At one point in January, board member Sarah Bunker emailed Superintendent Brent Colbry about the possibility of hiring a professional mediator to help the board work through their differences — a suggestion that didn’t go anywhere.

“I inquired to (board Chairwoman Dixie Ring) about the possibility of having a professional mediator for ourselves when this is discussed further,” she wrote. “Dixie stated she thought it would be a waste of time because she didn’t think anyone was willing to budge on their position, which if true, seems like the precise situation that warrants some professional assistance.”

For now, some board members said they remain divided on the issue, but whether it will affect other business remains to be seen.

“I think it’s going to take a while for people to settle down,” Bunker said in an interview. “Everyone genuinely believes they are right on either side. I think it will take a while, but I am optimistic; and hopefully, once things settle down, the community can come together and the kids can have fun. I see good things for Skowhegan.”

Ring, who declined to be interviewed, said in a Facebook message to a reporter the board remains divided, but she doesn’t see it affecting other school business. “This board has always worked well together, and I see no reason why it won’t continue to do so,” she said.

Of the public records obtained by the Morning Sentinel, many are emails and letters that Skowhegan residents and others sent to school officials about the issue.

“My 10 year old son is devastated at this,” a Smithfield resident wrote in a March 12 email to the superintendent and some school board members. “He is an avid sports player who has watched the Skowhegan Indians since he was born and (seen) many idols graduate along with his father and I as a Skowhegan Indian.”

“I know the debate has been contentious and at times nasty — showing a side of some people that I wish would stay hidden away forever,” wrote another woman who identified herself as a graduate of the Skowhegan Area High School class of 1999.

In total, more than 175 people weighed in either via email or in person between October and mid-January, according to a spreadsheet one board member compiled to organize all the feedback they were getting.

The board member, Bunker, said she made the spreadsheet as a way of checking her own biases and later circulated it to others.

“It felt to me like I was hearing a lot of teachers, school counselors and people trained in mental health issues saying, ‘This is bad for kids,’ on one side, and I wasn’t hearing an opposing argument on the other side from people with the same expertise,” said Bunker, who voted to change the name.

The spreadsheet listed 25 people or groups against the name change and 150 in favor of the change.

Included in those supporting the change were Gov. Janet Mills, members of the Penobscot Youth Council, a University of Maine professor, religious leaders, teachers and the legal director of ACLU Maine.

Those against the change included Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, some local business owners and Eunice Davidson, a board member of the Native American Guardian’s Association, a controversial group known for its support of Native American mascots around the country.

A Feb. 27 email to SAD 54 board members sent by someone with the anonymous email handle “Trumpster2016” illustrated the intense nature of some opinions coming into school officials’ inboxes.

Dixie Ring, chairwoman of the School Administrative District 54 school board, conducts a school board meeting Thursday at Skowhegan Area Middle School. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“Please do not cave to outside pressures to change our Skowhegan Indians name,” Trumpster2016 wrote to them. “Do not cave over the empty threats of lawsuits and legal actions. If you do cave, you’re going to have a lot of very angry people on your hands. … Think of it this way, do you want those people that will be angry to be from far out of town or right here in our own district? Do you want those angry people to be those that you work with, live with, shop with and see on a daily basis?”

A day earlier, Ring, the board chairwoman, emailed Colbry asking if he knew who the Trumpster2016 author was, saying the “3rd email was in my inbox this morning.”

“It makes me uncomfortable to get these,” she wrote.

 

COST IMPLICATIONS

In one letter, Skowhegan Area High School alumna Allison Dorko wrote to the board, encouraging them to fact-check as much as possible the testimony they received and sources cited and also asked them to think about the possibility of the board being sued.

“Hi Brent, Is there any validity to what she says about the board being held accountable if there’s a lawsuit,” board member Darcy Surette then wrote to Superintendent Brent Colbry.

The answer to that question, Colbry said in an email this week, is in short, no.

“I shared with all board members the fact that when acting in their official capacity, individual school board members are generally entitled to qualified immunity,” Colbry said. “This means that, in most cases, board members cannot be held liable for discretionary acts undertaken in their official capacity as board members.”

The board spent about $15,500 in legal fees this school year on the issue, including a January public forum, general legal advice, meetings and consultations with the board’s attorneys on the issue.

Colbry also estimated in emails responding to questions from Ring, the board chairwoman, and board member Jennifer Poirier, a supporter of keeping the name, that the cost of changing the mascot will be $20,000 to $25,000.

He said a preliminary estimate of the transition is expected to be in the $17,000-to-$25,000 range and includes some but not all of the items on a list compiled by Poirier.

The list includes changes to scoreboards and signs used by sports teams, changes to the floor and wall in the high school gymnasium and other small things.

Before the vote, Poirier also inquired by email whether the board could propose a resolution that would set a time frame for when the issue could be brought up again.

“A vote is a vote until it is voted again,” Colbry responded Feb. 20. “One Board cannot bind a future Board or even the present Board from raising it again in the future, regardless of how short a time frame it is.”

In other emails, Colbry also responded to a complaint that Poirier was working to undermine board decisions by calling on people to circulate petitions to send the issue to referendum after the vote was taken.

“This is unacceptable behavior for a seated board member,” wrote Hope Savage, of Skowhegan, a critic of the “Indians” name. “Her role, that she (agreed) to upon taking her seat, is to support the decisions of the board and not actively work to undermine them. I am appalled by the lack of ethics here.”

Jennifer Poirier listens to comments Thursday during a school board meeting at Skowhegan Area Middle School. Michael G. Seamans

Poirier, who declined to be interviewed, said in a Facebook message to a reporter that community members put forward the petition to put the issue to referendum, and they are entitled to do so if they feel the vote is not in the best interest of the community.

The board is scheduled to discuss the petition and possibility of a referendum Thursday.

“I do not feel as though I have undermined a decision of the board any more than the 2015 decision was undermined,” Poirier said.

 

‘SECRET MEETING’ CONCERNS

In a Jan. 10 email, Ring also contacted Colbry with concerns over a rumor that Poirier and fellow school board member Harold Bigelow were planning “a secret meeting of the board.”

“It has caused a lot of discussion,” wrote Ring, who in retrospect was referring to an invitation-only event Feb. 24 Poirier organized with the national group Native American Guardians Association, which supports keeping Native American names. “I actually was contacted today by the notyourmascot people this morning I have told them no such meeting is planned.”

Ring said in a message to a reporter this week that while four school board members attended the event, it did not constitute an illegal meeting “as it was not a board meeting.”

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act requires public notice be given for all proceedings of government bodies or agencies of three or more members.

Sigmund Shutz, an attorney for the Morning Sentinel, said at the time that in his view, attendance at conferences, speeches and events organized by third parties and social or community gatherings do not constitute government meetings, but several people still raised concerns about the legality of the event and the ethics of school board members attending.

In one email, Karin Leuthy, the founder of a progressive volunteer organization called Suit Up Maine, wrote to board members calling it a “clear violation of the Maine Freedom of Access Act.”

Leuthy also expressed concern over Poirier’s involvement in running the Skowhegan Indian Pride Facebook page, a closed group that supports keeping the “Indians” name.

Todd Smith listens to comments Thursday during a school board meeting at Skowhegan Area Middle School. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

And she said the involvement of two other board members, Karen and Todd Smith, who own an apparel and equipment business in Skowhegan and sell Skowhegan “Indians” apparel, represented a conflict of interest.

“The continued disregard for ethical and legal standards by current board members is a problem each one of you bears responsibility for,” Leuthy wrote. “Not only are you potentially violating the law, your actions and inaction erodes the public trust, and demonstrates that MSAD 54 students and families are not being properly served by their elected representatives.”

In an interview, Todd Smith responded to the allegation of a conflict of interest, saying: “If (the name) were to change, we could stand to make a lot more profit by creating T-shirt designs with the new logo. I don’t buy into the hype that anybody should recuse themselves for whatever reason. I run a business, and the products I sell and services I provide don’t play into any decision I make at a board level.”

As long as there is demand, Smith, who voted to keep the “Indians” name, said he doesn’t plan to stop selling mascot gear and apparel.

“For me personally, the Skowhegan Indians has been the name for years, and there’s too much history for us to not be the Skowhegan Indians,” Smith said.

 

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected] 

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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