Gary Sinclair listens during a Maine School Administrative District 54 board meeting in August at Skowhegan Area Middle School. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — Only one meeting is left to determine the Skowhegan-area school district’s new mascot — either Phoenix, River Hawks or to just remain Skowhegan.

At the Oct. 8 Maine School Administrative District 54 board of directors meeting, the 23-person panel will make the final decision, ending a selection process that was adopted last fall and kicked off at the beginning of the calendar year.

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.

The results of the student survey:

• Phoenix, the top choice, with 21.9%

• River Hawks, 21.5%

• Skowhegan, 19.3%

• Thunder, 12%

• Trailblazers, 7.5%

• Badgers, 5.9%

• River Drivers, 4.4%

• Sturgeon, 4.1%

• 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 and 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 a final option that evening, 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 board 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, Education Policy and Program Committee members initially suggested removing the Skowhegan option altogether, citing that it is not technically a mascot and that the selection process is for a mascot. Ultimately, in the interest of the 19.3% of the students that voted, the committee decided to include it in the list that will go before the board.

“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.”

“I think moving forward, there is no harm in moving Skowhegan forward. I think you can assume what the people in the room will (vote for),” Ellis said.

The committee meeting was brief and members decided to keep the top three options voted by students, reasoning that each member knew how they would vote at the upcoming board meeting.

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

“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 expressed that 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 chairp 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, 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.”

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.

Jean Franklin expressed that while stakeholders are important to consider, the community knew how the process would pan out and when the time for their feedback was due.

“We’ve moved on. It’s time, so let’s move on. I think we can all dwell on the past, but the Indian is done and we’ve got to let it go and move on.”

MSAD 54 serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan.

 

This story will be updated.

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