The Onteora District Board of Education voted, by 5-2, to change the Middle/High school mascot name from Indians to Onteora Eagles. This did not go without a night of debate. However, the June 7 Board of Education meeting at Bennett Intermediate School, there were very few residents in attendance. Trustees Dale Allison and Valerie Storey were the two no votes. School Board President Bobbi Schnell, Rob Kurnit, Laurie Osmond, Kevin Salem and Bennet Ratcliff voted in favor of the name change.
Retiring the Indian name was proposed last year through a previous Student Board Representative, but the Board did not address the issue until earlier this year when it directed Student Government, under the leadership of High School Principal Lance Edelman, to come up with a solution.
It began with the Human Rights club making a request, via an online petition in November, to Student Government that the mascot be replaced.
Student representative Raegen Loheide explained what took place at the Middle/High School once student government was given a directive. Following an online survey, three forums, and a contest for a new mascot, approximately 20 proposals were submitted and four were chosen: a black bear, eagles, thunder and mountain lions. Students voted via computer ballot, with the help of student Government setting up computers during lunch. Out of a student population of approximately 600, 107 voted, and the name Eagles was chosen.
“With that choice, Student Government is recommending a proposal to essentially, as you deem fit…(seek) a change in the dynamic on stereotypes, bullying, and foster a welcoming and learning environment,” Loheide said. “Upon the vote from the students, I was reflecting on it and I really think the Eagles will be a great representation for our school, because not only do they represent our sports, but they can represent our academics too, represent strength, integrity, freedom, and exploration in academics, freedom to learn. So I think it touches real prospects for our school.”
Salem began the process proposing that the placement of changing the name be placed on the agenda. It was seconded by Osmond and allowed to proceed on the agenda by a four-to-three vote. Kurnit, Allison, and Storey voted against, requesting to delay the vote until the next Board meeting.
District Clerk Fern Amster said, “In the past the Board had decided that the process would be, discussion at one meeting, vote at the next on every issue.”
Osmond said, “That language was not adopted as a resolution by the board. It was a procedural discussion and it was recognized that there would be exceptions and by voting to put a motion on the agenda, procedure is being followed.”
Board trustees were divided about the process, some saying that a vote on this particular night was premature, while other trustees said the conversation has been going on since 2000 when the mascot was removed temporarily, followed by contentious, sometimes violent debate. Eventually the Indian mascot was returned via board action following a 2001 non-binding public referendum that requested such by fewer than 100 votes out of nearly 4000.
Newly elected trustee Allison had the strongest words. “I would pretty much say, I would guarantee mayhem tomorrow if it were put to a vote, just knowing throughout the entire Onteora community, there’s a lot of people that feel strong. I don’t know why they’re not here, I can’t answer that question, but I think that it will create a huge…huge…something, that no one will want to have to deal with.”
This statement struck a few chords with other trustees.
“I do think we are better than we were in 2002 and implied threats of mayhem or violence, we’re better than that,” Osmond said. “This is the time for us to rise above.”
“We are a divided community, tomorrow we will be a divided community,” Ratcliff said. “What are you going to do to bridge the divide — not what are you going to do to fight whether it’s right or wrong — what are you going to do to bridge the divide.”
Salem said, “If I’m an Eagle tomorrow, if my daughter takes the field as an Eagle I’m gonna go there with the same sense of pride and I know you will, too. I will be standing there with everybody else and were gonna be the community we need to be. And it will be mayhem tomorrow, mayhem next week, and maybe mayhem for the next year and maybe I won’t have a seat on the board next time there is a vote.”
Kurnit supported changing the name. However, he said he believed some people were being disenfranchised due to a hasty vote. “I don’t like the idea that I have to choose based on that and I did not vote to have it put on the agenda for this reason and I still feel like this is not the right way to do it.”
Debate followed, with opinions ranging from it not being seen as a racial stereotype, to it being compared to names such as, “negroes,” and “Orientals.” Schnell was her high school mascot, or “a Chief,” she said, “but what kept us together all those years, was not the name, it was who we were as a team and who we became a family.”
While a small handful of students spoke in favor of changing the name during public commentary, the only person in attendance who spoke against the change was previous Board Trustee Cindy O’Connor. “Even though I might not always agree with all that the School Board does over the years, I think we are in a good place right now,” she said, “and I would hate to see the district brought back to 2002. Google it, it was nasty.”
Storey said, “We need to do more research and discuss this. It’s going way too fast on the agenda, it should only be in discussion…” O’Connor interjected and spoke from the audience, “It’s not fair to the stakeholders.”
Storey and Allison both agreed that not enough was done to reach out to students who wanted to keep the mascot and said they believed student involvement in the process was low.
Salem said, “Now we can pick apart the process and say it’s not perfect, but I think they (the students) did a better job than the United States Senate. So to criticize the process for High School students and to what degree do we attribute apathy, I think in itself is an attribute. I think it’s just there, and I’m pretty certain if one sets the bar of students, that’s probably the amount of taxpayers who participate in every single election. I don’t defend any of that, I wish everyone would have participated.”
Storey also questioned the cost to change the name. “One of our jobs at being a board member is the fiduciary part of it. We haven’t even discussed the amount of money it will cost to do this.”
Salem pointed out that “Most companies will not put the name ‘Indian’ on uniforms anymore.” Loheide said most, but not all sports uniforms at Onteora no longer carry the Indian name; however the booster club sells shirts and sweatshirts with the name, not reliant on the taxpayer. Addidas has provided a grant to change the name, but some trustees say it’s not enough.
Jared Mance, director of facilities, tested the district’s water above and beyond the state’s requirement. “Lead bound water has been a frequent topic in the news and it seemed appropriate to re-examine how we can assure how the water supply is free of lead in our buildings,” he said.
Testing in all the buildings is required every three years, Mance said, and, “consistently below any required action levels.” In any case, additional random samplings were taken from classrooms, public drinking fountains and the kitchens. “We purposely took samples from older plumbing fixtures because those stations are most likely sources of lead.”
In nearly all samples the results came up lead free except for a drinking fountain in one classroom at Phoenicia school. “After consulting the Ulster County Health department, we sampled that same fixture again and sampled after a five minute flush of the water.” It then came up lead free; therefore the lead is within the pipes and not the water itself. The fountain was closed down and Mance directed custodians that on other drinking fountains just as a safety measure to flush the water in the morning. He said older plumbing fixtures often hold lead and long-term solutions will include replacing old pipes. Additionally, the newer drinking fountains that carry water bottle fill ups have a filtration device at the spout and will take out any lead particles.