Thursday April 13, 2017
Tension in South Burlington has been high during this budget development season and the issues are twofold, rising concerns regarding increases in school budget spending and the retirement of the South Burlington High School (SBHS) Rebel name. After a unanimous vote by the school board in February to begin the process of removing and replacing the school’s moniker, a social media group called the Rebel Alliance formed to advocate for their position to preserve the Rebel identifier. In pursuit of their mission, the group officially submitted two petitions to the city clerk on April 5. One petition, with 867 signatures, calls for the Rebel name to remain. Another petition prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds for the name change received 762 signatures. The petitions, which required signatures from at least five percent of the city’s registered voters, are in the process of being verified by City Clerk Donna Kinville. After the vetting process is complete, Kinville will deliver the petitions to both the city council and the school board for consideration for a public vote in a ballot initiative.
The Rebel Alliance was started as a Facebook group in early February by Corey Mansfield SBHS Class of ‘98, and 1986 SBHS graduate Kiya Batmanglidj. The group quickly gained traction. Within 24 hours, the page had 1,500 members. While discussions often become heated in local online forums, Batmanglidj, an administrator of the social media page, acknowledges the fine line between free speech and disruptive speech, and says he is committed to upholding civil discourse. As of April 7, the group had 2,282 members.
Batmanglidj, who currently resides in Washington, DC, spearheaded the petition drive. While the initial thought was to petition for a single ballot item for the Rebel name, resident Marcy Brigham joined the group with the suggestion of an additional petition to prohibit funding for the name change.
Brigham, a 2017 write-in candidate for the school board, relayed via e-mail why she is opposed to the Rebel name change. “All of my kids and their friends proudly identify as Rebels, in the true definition of the word,” Brigham wrote. “I acknowledge the existence in the past of the visual symbol of the South’s 1860s battle flag, as well as the soldier. I do not believe that South Burlington, in any way, ever condoned or promoted the negative, racist ideologies or practices of the Confederacy...We were and are rebellious, successful, confident, proud people... not racist people.”
Batmanglidj opposes the name change, in part, because it represents an important element of South Burlington’s heritage and identity. He believes that mascot-related imagery can evolve, and that the Rebel name represents a community that is inclusive, respectful, and welcoming. He also believes the name change process was conducted without enough input from the community, and objects to that. “It has been driven by a small group of vocal activists trying to impose an ideological agenda on the majority of SB residents,” Batmanglidj said. To emphasize this, he referred to a student survey conducted by the school district in late 2015.“It showed that 92% of students had no problem with the Rebel name. The administration likes to cite a survey about teacher’s views on the Rebel name, but they conveniently leave out this definitive student survey. Unfortunately, this lack of transparency serves only to erode confidence in their leadership,” he said.
Brigham helped collect and compile signatures for the petitions, but the retirement of the Rebel name is not the only reason she became involved. The school budget has always been a key issue for her. “I have always been a critic of the school spending, and have never voted yes. This is because the board and administration do not stand-up to the teachers’ union. Eighty percent of our budget to over pay teachers and their benefits is absurd and unsustainable. I do not understand that, if curriculum and aptitude testing are regulated by the government, why then is the education being taught here so much more costly than the same education in another town. So for me there wasn’t a transition from Rebel to budget, I have always disapproved of the budget,” Brigham wrote.
Even though Batmanglidj is no longer a resident of South Burlington, he discovered through his involvement with the Facebook page that for many, the budget issue is crucial. “The group’s transition to opposition to the school budget was spontaneous and unplanned,” he relayed. “The main concerns voiced by SB residents who are members of the group involved a lack of accountability for cost growth, a lack of transparency as to where funds were going, the looming teacher’s contract, and the inclusion of funds to change the Rebel name at the cost of more important priorities. The school board incorrectly assumed that people only care about this year’s tax rate and thought that if the revised budget had no tax increase, it would be approved. But the defeat of the revised budget shows that people care about cost growth,” he wrote.
As the school district plans for its next steps, the petition process will continue at the city and district level. City Attorney Andrew Bolduc said he is “working with the school district’s attorneys to prepare a legal opinion for our legislative bodies.”
While the budget and petition debates persist, the district is moving forward with the renaming process. High School Principal Patrick Burke and Tuttle Middle School Principal Karsten Schlenter are co-chairing the Mascot Selection Oversight Committee. In mid-April the committee will publish all of the suggestions that meet the criteria and hold a student and staff vote for students in grades 6-12 prior to making a recommendation to the school board, possibly in mid-May. Meetings take place at SBHS April 13, April 20, May 4 and May 11, and are open to the public.
You can follow the SBSD Mascot Selection Oversight Committee work via the South Burlington School District website. The Rebel Alliance group can be found on Facebook.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent