Board Rejects Rebel Ballot Initiatives

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Thursday May 18, 2017

The school board rejected the option for South Burlington voters to weigh in on citizen-led ballot initiatives regarding the Rebel name last week. Board member Steve Wisloski made the motion to place a petition to maintain the Rebel identifier for South Burlington athletic teams on the ballot, but the motion, without a second, failed.

In early April, residents affiliated with the Rebel Alliance, a 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 the signatures of 867 residents, seeks to retain the Rebel name for South Burlington schools. Another petition seeks to bar the allocation of budget resources toward the name change efforts, with the signatures of 762 residents. For a petition to be considered for a ballot item it must be supported by the signatures of five percent of the registered voters in South Burlington. Both petitions were verified by the city clerk’s office, and the petitions were officially presented to the board in late April. The board discussed the petitions at their May 3 meeting, with action warned for the May 10 meeting.

Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald opened the dialogue by saying, “Though I respect the efforts of a group of community members securing enough signatures to warrant consideration of an advisory ballot item on both the Rebel nickname and expenses associated with changing it exclusively for South Burlington sports teams, I do not support the board taking action on the petitions.” Fitzgerald went on to note her reasoning, including the board’s decision making responsibilities under state statute, the exclusionary nature of one of the petitions related solely to keeping the Rebel identifier for sports teams, and the thorough process both the board and administration embarked upon to ensure removing the Rebel identifier would help to unify students.

At the same time, Fitzgerald acknowledged the misunderstandings many have felt on both sides of the debate. She said that while some families who have been here for generations and helped build South Burlington wound up feeling judged for their desire to preserve a part of their identity, others who had spoken up for the change were often characterized “as pandering to a minority” and “overdoing it on being politically correct.”

“There should be no shame or righteousness in either of these positions. There should also be no judgment of our neighbors for their sincere beliefs,” Fitzgerald said.

For board member Martin LaLonde, “This comes down to a simple proposition: if I ask the community through a referendum to weigh in on an issue, am I willing to replace my judgment for the majority view? The answer in this case is no. The board made its decision after significant feedback and deliberation. That decision was not based on what we thought the majority may or may not want. It was based on what we understood was in the best interest of our entire student body and employees. Even if I thought the majority of the community would support the board’s decision, I would not be in favor of placing it on a ballot. We should not seek affirmation of our decisions through ballot referenda. Instead, the community has the opportunity to affirm or deny their support for board member decisions in elections for their representatives.”

Earlier in the meeting, in response to prior public questioning regarding the decision making process, LaLonde had provided a detailed account on the history of the decision, an 18-month process that began in August of 2015, replete with community feedback both pro and con. LaLonde cited meeting minutes and articles in The Other Paper, quoting his own words. He noted how many members of the public were at each meeting and the various formats by which the board received feedback. Although the board unanimously made the decision in October of 2015 to retain the Rebel name, it did come with caveats including embarking on a re-branding initiative that ultimately failed to happen.

LaLonde went on to express that he did not think a vote was necessary so that people could feel “heard,” since the board has been listening to all opinions on the issue since the process began. “This is not an issue upon which the majority view should take precedence,” LaLonde said, “Where an action is hurtful to a few people, asking the community if it bothers them is not the answer. Where a subgroup of students and teachers are legitimately offended by what is supposed to be a unifying school nickname, asking the community to weigh in is not the answer.”

But the community’s desire to be heard is part of the reason Wisloski made the motion to warn the Rebel name petition. Wisloski said, notwithstanding the 18 months of work on this issue, the process of including the community could have been more rigorous. Although Wisloski thinks changing the name is the right thing to do, he also thinks warning the name change petition would be valuable. His view was not shared by other board members, and his motion, without a ‘second,’ went no further.

The petition regarding funding for the rebel name did not have the support of any of the board members.
Public Comment
The public had an opportunity to offer their feedback prior to the vote and opinions, once again, were varied. Several community members requested the referendum in order for supporters of maintaining the Rebel name to “have a voice.” Resident Robert Skiff criticized the process and said that he had not become involved in this debate because of the Rebel name, but due to the “rule of law and democracy.” Skiff encouraged the board to engage in a “rigorous public debate rather than imposing its will on the community.” Claudia Berger also asked the board to bring the petitions to a “binding vote” in order for both sides of the debate to have a say and promote healing.

Alesia Clear, however, said that putting to a vote, an issue that affects “people of color in a majority white community” didn’t sit well with her. Educator Jim Shields added that the board would be abdicating their responsibilities by bringing the Rebel name issue, one the administration has found is harmful to students, to a vote. Shields said going to a vote on the Rebel identity would be inappropriate given that it is the board’s job to make these decisions.

Indeed, at the May 3 board meeting, the school board’s attorney, Pietro Lynn offered clarity around the board’s obligation regarding the petitions. 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.

In Fitzgerald’s closing, she added, “My hope is that we can retire the Rebel nickname with the dignity it deserves for having defined the quality and character of SB graduates for 50 years and that we, collectively, can embrace the choice our current students make to identify and unify themselves going forward.”

Stacey Savage, a member of the Rebel Alliance group, expressed deep disappointment with the board’s decision to reject the petitions which represented the voices of five percent of the city’s voters. She wrote in an email, “The School Board demonstrated a complete lack of respect for the taxpayers of South Burlington by not allowing them to be heard via a vote on the Rebel name.”

The ballot warned for a June 6 vote will only have one article: the budget, which does not include funding to change the Rebel name. A public information session on the budget will take place the evening of June 5.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent