Heated Rutland school board meeting puts old mascot back on the table

Rutland High School
Rutland High School. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

At a raucous school board meeting Tuesday night, a former Rutland High School mascot was nearly resurrected.

The school board voted in February to change the mascot from the “Raiders” to the “Ravens,” after a group of alumni, students and staff pointed to the previous mascot’s racist origins

At an emotionally charged meeting Tuesday night, multiple board members were yelling over one another, arguing not so much about the mascot but about parliamentary procedure.

Some argued that board members were violating Robert’s Rules of Order, often used to govern procedures in public meetings. Some complained about violations Tuesday night. Others said violations in previous months should render earlier votes on the mascot invalid.

In March, Stephanie Stoodley and Tricia O’Connor, who both oppose changing the mascot, were elected to the board. Tuesday’s board meeting was the first since the election.

At the beginning of the meeting, the board elected Hurley Cavacas, another critic of the mascot change, as board chair. He replaced Alison Notte, who favored the change. 

Near the end of the meeting, Stoodley, clad in a “Raider” T-shirt, made a motion to immediately reinstate the former mascot name and logo, arguing that the new board should embark on a comprehensive review of the previous board’s decision to abandon the old mascot.

Board member Kevin Kiefaber, who supported the change, said he was concerned about how the vote might affect students, who went through a monthslong process to choose a new mascot. 

Notte called a point of order, saying that the board would need a two-thirds majority vote on the motion because it was not warned in the meeting’s agenda. Cavacas and board member Erin Shimp said Notte did not require a two-thirds majority when she led the board through two votes on abandoning the former mascot and approving the new one. 

From there, the conversation devolved. 

“I would like the chair to take a recess and to review Robert's Rules,” Notte said. 

“Ms. Notte, I will certainly do it, and I promise you, I will treat you much better than you treated me,” Cavacas replied. 

Before the recess, Shimp said she was “not treated correctly” by Notte during previous discussions on the topic and raised issues with the motion to abandon the mascot in October. 

“I would like to say that the initial motion for this was not on the agenda, so if that's what you're preaching, Alison, then you were very misguided on the first attempt on this,” she said.

Her comment was followed by a moment of indiscernible chaos, during which Shimp, Notte and Cavacas all spoke at once. It ended when Cavacas demanded the recess.

‘The law’s the law, honey’

Notte, reached by phone Wednesday morning, said the initial motion to abandon the previous mascot and the additional motion to accept the Raven were properly warned and needed only a simple majority to pass. 

After the recess, Cavacas said the board could delay Stoodley’s motion until the next meeting, on May 11, and asked for a roll-call vote. Notte said her point of order still had not been resolved. Shimp asked Notte to direct her to the exact page in a book of Robert’s Rules that would explain the term “point of order,” and the exchange broke into another argument. 

Cavacas said he recommended that the issue be tabled until May 11 and, “because Alison did not act properly” in holding a vote to approve the new Raven mascot, he would “be checking to see, for consistency purposes, that that vote be discarded and come up again.”

He said there’s a difference between an “action item” on a public meeting agenda, which would indicate that the board would hold a vote on that matter, and a regular agenda item. Notte maintains that, as long as an item is clearly stated in the agenda — warning the public that the matter will be taken up in some way and providing a chance to respond — the board can vote using a simple majority. Cavacas said he intends to check on the matter with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. 

“If you cannot tell me, Alison, where you read that rule in the Robert's Rules of Order,” Shimp said, “what page, so I can reference it — because I'm sitting here and I'm not seeing anything. So if you can't prove that to me right now and then, then I think this needs to go to a vote.”

“That’s not actually how it works,” Notte said. 

“Well, the law’s the law, honey,” Shimp replied.

The motion, to reinstate the previous mascot and review the board’s process for abandoning it, was ultimately tabled until the board meeting in May. Cavacas, reached by phone Wednesday, said he believes he has the votes to win a simple majority vote at that time. 

“This is a question of the process,” he said, and that he will include representatives from Native American communities, who have said mascots that depict Indigenous culture and heritage are offensive, in the discussion.

Promoting division?

Before the debate, the meeting progressed through an agenda that included updates from school officials about anti-racism work and about an investigation of a recent “Zoom bombing” at Rutland Middle School, when hackers entered virtual classrooms and made racist remarks. 

O’Connor asked whether the anti-racist work in the schools could have prompted the attacks and said she thinks conversations about race are promoting division.

Notte said Wednesday that she found these conversations, together in one meeting, concerning. 

“This take is not going to help the community,” she said. “It's very shortsighted, and it is not doing the service to our community that elected officials should be upholding.”

Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss commended students on Wednesday for their cooperation with the board, particularly after it asked them several months ago to choose a new mascot. That undertaking wasn’t small, he said. 

“Students with differing opinions on the subject were able to conduct themselves so well and so respectfully to come to an agreement of how to move forward,” he said. “It really was a model.”

He said students have so much to think about during the pandemic that the mascot issue has largely fallen into the background. 

“We have students that care so much about inclusion, about respect, about dignity, about student voice, about doing the right thing,” he said. “Those people are there, and they're going to continue to evolve and be who they are. This issue, locally, I'm sure they'll remember it — eventually, it'll get resolved. Time will keep moving forward.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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