Board Discusses Petitions Related to the Rebel Name

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Thursday May 11, 2017

In the beginning of April, residents affiliated with the Rebel Alliance — a Facebook group dedicated to maintaining the Rebel name for South Burlington’s athletic teams — submitted two petitions to South Burlington City Clerk Donna Kinville. One petition, with 867 signatures, supports continuing to use the Rebel name as the school’s identifier and another, with 762 signatures, seeks to bar the allocation of city resources for use in any efforts to change the rebel name. The signature requirement for a petition to be considered for a ballot initiative is five percent of the registered voters in South Burlington. With this number both achieved and verified by the city, the petitions were officially presented to the city council and the school board at their last meetings. At the May 3 school board meeting, conversations around next steps began.

First, the school board’s attorney, Pietro Lynn, offered clarity around the board’s legal obligation regarding the petitions. The quick answer is — there isn’t any. Lynn outlined several areas in which the electorate has a voice. These include electing and voting on the salaries of board members, money to approve bonding, long term leases for the district, and the purchase and sale of real estate. The remainder of “powers” lie with the school board according to 16 VSA Section 563. The Vermont Supreme Court says that the board is under no legal obligation to place petitions on a ballot and, if approved, they are not bound to follow the results.

After Lynn’s explanation, the board held a discussion and asked questions. Martin LaLonde said he had mixed feeling about one of the petitions, keeping the Rebel name, but, noting his hesitancy in setting a precedent where the public dictates individual line item spending, was less conflicted on the petition regarding use of budget funds for the name change. In addition, the latest recommended budget renders this point moot, given that it does not include funding for making changes associated with the Rebel identifier.

LaLonde added that the board has heard all of the comments they possible could have, both pro and con, regarding the name change and that the decision was made with the interest of the entire student body in mind. He expressed his continued desire for people to voice their opinions, but didn’t want the community to believe that voting on the petition regarding the Rebel name would change a decision that “lies within the walls of our schools.”

Bridget Burkhardt shared a similar thought process. For her part, the Rebel name change was “clearly an administration decision.” Burkhardt said she would prefer not to have a referendum if it would not change the decision of the board, and for her personally, it would not. “The referendum pulls out hope in people that we will back down on our decision,” Burkhardt said, “we can’t have that ambiguity out there.” Alex McHenry and Steve Wisloski both thought that the petition regarding the Rebel name should go to a referendum so that people feel heard.
When the discussion was opened to the public, comments varied from staunch support for keeping the Rebel name and spending money on other items, such as more teachers or programming, to ridding the school of the name once and for all. Residents Gerry Silverstein and Dan Albrecht both criticized the process by which the decision was made, referring to an 18-month ordeal that included taking community feedback at numerous public meetings and online. Albrecht called the process “flawed” and said that the evidence of such could be found in the recently packed meetings and general public outcry. Albrecht noted that when the district engaged in their master planning and visioning discussion regarding school consolidation, they slowed the process down when the public expressed concern and, ultimately, arrived at a different decision. He suggested following a similar protocol with the name change issue.
Alida Dinklage, a 48-year resident who had four children go through the schools, commended the students who brought this issue to the forefront. Dinklage said she admired their “knowledge of history, their sensitivity to other people’s heritage, and their perseverance for propelling this necessary change...it was something we adults somehow could not manage.”

Middle school student, Layla Rahmati, spoke up about how the Rebel name makes her feel unwelcome and scared. As a student who will soon enter the high school, she would prefer not to see the Rebel name as it reminds her of “what it used to be like.”

After listening to comments and concluding their discussion, the board agreed to add the citizen petition item to their agenda for a special meeting May 10, where it will be warned for action. The May 10 meeting takes place after The Other Paper’s Tuesday press time.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent