Four South Burlington residents have sued the city school district over its decision to abandon the high school’s Rebels nickname.
The plaintiffs want the name change delayed until the court decides if a community vote on the mascot should take place.
The board’s lawyer has asked for the suit to be dismissed, arguing that board members, not residents, have the authority to make such decisions.
Plaintiffs Stacey Savage, Robert A. Skiff Jr., Benjamin Nye and Marcy Brigham sued in Chittenden Superior Court.
Reached Tuesday afternoon, Skiff told VTDigger that a member of the group Rebel Alliance sought volunteers as plaintiffs in the case. He said he couldn’t recall who initiated the suit or recruited volunteers but that he joined due to his fundamental opposition to the board’s decision.
“I got involved in the lawsuit because the district has disregarded a lawful petition,” said Skiff, a district parent and longtime South Burlington resident. “The school board doesn’t want to put the issue to a vote, disregarding democracy, which will further racial divides in the community.”
Brigham had created the online petition shortly after the board decided unanimously Feb. 1 to change the school nickname.
Brigham’s petition garnered more than 800 signatures. A petition to put an item on the ballot requires signatures from 5 percent of registered voters in the community — or about 700 in South Burlington.
Organizers missed the deadline to put an item on the Town Meeting Day ballot but tried to trigger a special election. No citywide vote occurred.
Pietro Lynn, the school district’s attorney, argued the board’s decision was lawful, regardless of the petition.
The “elected school board, not the electorate, has the authority to make operations and budgetary decisions and properly exercised its discretion in declining to put the Rebel name articles before the voters,” he wrote in a motion to dismiss the suit.
Lynn said he hopes the court will settle the case quickly and cost-effectively. He said a hearing had been scheduled for Friday, but he requested an extension because his clients were notified just two days before. A new date has not been set.
“We are confident that the court will grant our motion to dismiss,” Lynn said. “The statutes in Vermont are very clear regarding school boards and the electorate.”
Savage said the school board “ostracized” the majority of the community by ignoring the petition and not holding a vote. She said the decision to sue was made by core members of the Rebel Alliance group and that the concept came up in early conversations.
“It became a definitive game plan after they refused to honor the community and put the issue to a vote,” Savage said.
Nye did not respond to messages seeking comment. Brigham referred questions to lawyer Paul Gillies, who did not respond to a call Tuesday afternoon.
The Rebel Alliance, a Facebook-organized opposition group, has raised money for legal costs through online contributions and T-shirt sales. A GoFundMe page listed just over $5,000 in donations as of Tuesday. The organization will continue to raise money, according to Savage.
“It shows that a lot of people are behind this. It shows grass-roots support,” Skiff said of the fundraising.
The alliance formed after the board voted unanimously to drop the Rebels nickname. The board had voted to keep the name 15 months earlier but reversed the decision after pressure from students and community members.
The Rebel Alliance has already used its influence in local issues.
Alliance members twice campaigned to defeat the school budget in votes in March and April, until a proposal successfully passed in June. The group registered as a political action committee in March.
Savage said the alliance will continue to play an active role in the community, regardless of the outcome of the suit. She said the group is recruiting and preparing candidates for upcoming elections, and monitoring city and school district issues.
“We feel it’s time for a big change in this city, and we are simply acting on the many voices we hear from,” Savage said.
Some residents had pushed to drop the Rebels name because of its association with the Confederacy, and thus slavery. Opponents of the name change said the moniker relates to the community’s decision to separate from Burlington and create a new high school. They also cited the cost of making a change.
A committee of community members developed a list of potential replacement mascots, and student polling recommended Wolves as the finalist. The school board adopted that name.
Principal Patrick Burke posted pictures on Twitter of new Wolves uniforms Monday as replacement apparel began to arrive.
The lawsuit mentions a $170,580 taxpayer cost for switching mascots. Changes include the gym floor, scoreboards, uniforms and signs on school grounds. During a February board meeting, Superintendent David Young indicated the cost as $96,965 after the subtraction of already scheduled maintenance costs.