Shakespeare & Company A Body of Water June-July 2024

BOE still seeking clarity on Indians name change

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By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

The state has not yet provided the additional guidance that was promised for the mandated change to team names and mascots that use Native American imagery. File photo

RAVENA-COEYMANS-SELKIRK — The guidance promised by the state on mandated mascot changes in school districts that use Native American imagery has still not materialized.

But the district is still required to move forward with the process of changing the name and mascot.

In December, District Superintendent Dr. Brian Bailey of the RCS Central School District said the State Education Department promised to provide a question-and-answer fact sheet for school districts that are now required to change team names and mascots that invoke Native Americans — such as the RCS Indians.

But at the Jan. 11 meeting of the board of education, Bailey said the information was still not provided by the state.

“The State Education Department did not deliver on a ‘frequently asked questions’ document before the holiday so we are left to have a discussion about where we move from here,” Bailey told the board.

The state initially announced in November that school districts that use imagery, names or other iconography related to indigenous people will have to change or face the loss of state funding, which for RCS amounts to $26 million a year, according to Bailey, and the loss of jobs for all district elected officials and board of education members.

The state requirement was released after the Cambridge school district, which is also called the Indians, lost a court case asking that the district be allowed to retain the name. The Cambridge district has appealed the court decision, but the state’s mandate on other school districts is not dependent on the culmination of the court case, Bailey said.

“The State Education Department has the capacity to direct us to do things in some ways beyond the scope of what is happening in case law,” Bailey said. “So although the case law is still moving through the court system, it doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on what we are expected to do next.”

The timeline and state requirements need clarity, according to Bailey, but all districts in the state with Native American team names and mascots must affirm that they agree to make the switch, Bailey said.

“By June 2023, the school board needs to have made affirmation to make the change,” the superintendent said. “It doesn’t say the change has to happen, it says they have to assert that they are going to make a change for the school district. And it calls out specifically Native American team names, logos or images.”

Initially, districts were told that all changes had to be made by the end of 2024, but the state appears to have granted an extension, though specifics remain unclear.

“What they are stating now is that there should be changes within a reasonable time, which shall be no later than the 2024-25 school year,” Bailey said. “An extension may be granted if a school district shows good cause. It gives us some time to do some of the things that we need to do.”

District officials and the buildings and grounds committee are attempting to identify what changes will need to happen and how much it will cost.

“The first question or angry comment people have is, who is going to pay for this?” Bailey said. “At the next meeting, we will have a scope of what it is we are talking about because we see things that are very visible, and we see things that might be subtle.”

All the banners in the high school gym would have to change, the bottom of the pool, which has the Indians’ insignia, the gym floor, signage, athletic uniforms, and many other items would have to reflect the name change — and all that would be costly, board members said.

“There is a lot to it and we want to try to capture as much of that as we can and talk about it at the next board meeting, because if we can’t mitigate costs, all the rest of the discussion is futile,” Bailey said.

Board of education member William McFerran asked if more information was still expected from the state about how changes are to be implemented and how they will be paid for.

“It seems like a double whammy on our taxpayers that they are going to be burdened with paying for the change,” McFerran said. “Is that something we can petition to ask for more building aid or something to offset the cost of some of the changes?”

The state has not at this time offered information about funding name or mascot changes.

Board member Jennifer Molino asked if it were possible to get the backing of a Native American tribe to retain the “Indians” name.

“Was there any guidance that you could get permission from some Native American tribe that you could continue on with the name?” Molino asked. “I’m not saying that is the course we should take, but was there any guidance given for that?”

Bailey said that is one area the state has been specific about.

“That is probably the only guidance that we have that is more definitive,” he said. “The letter (from the Education Department) states that school districts who have a current agreement with a native tribe, it would continue to be honored,” Bailey said. “[The BOCES commissioner] has said that there is no petitioning to Native American peoples asking permission, unless you already have an agreement today… They are saying that we are not allowed to go shopping.”

Molino said she has heard from numerous people in the community that oppose the change.

“I have had several people saying they want to keep it what it is, that they feel strongly about that,” Molino said.

Bailey responded that there has been documentation by several Native American tribes contending that the use of indigenous imagery and names is offensive to them.

“There are quite a few articles and position papers that have come out from Native American tribes in support of this decision, that for way too long, school districts have used derogatory imagery and have done shameful things to races of people who had shameful things done to them when their land was taken, and they are very compelling,” Bailey said.

“We have to think about both sides of the argument — what are we teaching our children now about our place in the universe and this world if we are saying, well, we are offending some people but if we shop around, maybe we can find some that won’t be offended and then it will be OK for us to do it,” he added.

Bailey is planning a meeting with Jennifer Murphy, director of Athletics, Physical Education, Health & Wellness, to discuss the replacement of uniforms, the superintendent said. Not all of them will have to be replaced as not all have the Indians’ iconography.

Moving forward, affected school districts still need clarity on a number of issues.

“I think there are still some unanswered questions that we need to have answered with clarity and we are not the only district asking these questions, so I do think that they will come out with something that will help us with more concrete guidance and if nothing else, the more concrete guidance has the potential to help answer questions for people who think, ‘this is ridiculous, why are we choosing to do this?’” Bailey said.

Having more concrete information from the State Education Department will help the board to make decisions and help the community understand why the change is being made.

“We need clarity because otherwise we will consistently be pushing against people who love that they come from here and they love what we’ve been and they won’t understand why this is happening to us,” Bailey said. “We are the intermediaries between regulation and the execution of it, and that needs to be clear to the folks.”

The issue is expected to be discussed again at the Feb. 1 meeting of the board of education. No steps have yet been taken to come up with a new name and logo.

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