By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
Savannah will still be called the Savages, but the school's mascot imagery will be changing, starting next school year.
The Savannah Board of Education voted 4-3 Tuesday night to retain the "Savage" nickname, but phase out the Native American imagery and symbolism associated with the mascot.
The board also motioned to expand curriculum and expand its relationship with the Andrew County Museum and Historical Society to educate students on the history of the mascot, and to honor that history as well.
It's a decision that qualms a 10-month long debate amongst the board and community.
"This has been a long work-in-progress," outgoing school board president Stancy Bond said. "It's something the board has really very diligently tried to be thorough in our evaluation. We received a lot of criticism for taking so long. But in the end, I think it proved that we did our homework, we read through all public comment, we listened to everyone's concern and we made a decision. That's ultimately what we're here for - to make decisions for our district."
Board member Dyann Duncan motioned to put the mascot issue before voters on the August ballot - a motion that Bond opposed.
"We were elected to make decisions and I think we are fully capable and educated," Bond said. "And I don't think that we should put this on the ballot."
Duncan's motion failed narrowly, 4-3. Bond, vice-president Rebecca Bledsoe, Linda Kozminski and newly elected president Joseph Barbosa voted against putting the issue on the August ballot.
Barbosa then suggested keeping the name "Savage," but removing the Native American imagery from uniforms, playing surfaces and other places on the school's campus.
"This debate has gone on for the last 10 months," Barbosa said. "Not only in our community, but abroad and I think we need to move toward some sort of resolution."
Barbosa simply offered the idea up for discussion. Bond made it into a motion, while adding the amendment to, "expand the curriculum of course offerings to include Native American history, culture, genealogy and current events and instruct the administration to develop a relationship with Native American groups for educational opportunities" starting in the 2022-23 school year.
The amendment also instructed administration to "expand the district relationship with the Andrew County Museum and Historical Society and Savannah Alumni Association Foundation to preserve and maintain school artifacts and history including Savage memorabilia.
Barbosa notes this amendment was key in Tuesday's decision.
"The one thing I kept hearing from constituents," Barbosa said, "they felt that this was an attack on their identity. I did not want that to be the case. This is a moment where we preserve who we are and preserve our history. This preserves a big piece of our town."
A mascot committee was formed last July to do research on the history of the mascot and to explore alternatives to the current name and imagery.
That committee voted 4-4 last month on a mascot change, ultimately leaving the decision up to the board.
"I'm ready to be done," said Bond. "I think most of the community was ready for us to make a decision and move forward."
There was no public comment at Tuesday's meeting, but 348 comments from community members were submitted to the board beforehand.
"Five of those were 'no change' comments," Bond revealed. "So, that means that 340 plus were for change, and I think that was expressed through those comments."
Bond, Barbosa, Bledsoe and Kozminski voted in favor of the mascot image change. Duncan, along with board members Jamin Sybert and Than Wagers, voted against.
It's been a divisive issue since the beginning, but Bond is relieved to see her time as school board president end with such an impactful decision.
"It's not really been a fun discussion," she admitted. "Both sides are very passionate about their opinion and both sides make great points, but ultimately, we made a great compromise and that's what it's all about."
The discussion does not end with Tuesday's vote. The estimated cost of phasing out all of the Native American imagery on Savannah's campus and uniforms could be in the neighborhood of $500,000.
Bond made it clear that not a cent of that expense would come from the school district's budget.
"As we do routine maintenance, that's when we'll look at images and what needs to be replaced and how we go forward," Bond said. "At a decent pace, but fiscally responsible. So, we won't use any district money to replace the gym floor. We just had it replaced two years ago."
There's a lot of work ahead for Barbosa, as he takes over as the board's new president. But as a lifelong area resident, Barbosa is excited to move forward and fully resolve the matter.
"It is somewhat resolved, but with anything in our system and anything in America, there's going to debate and there's going to be discussion," he said. "But, I am looking forward to focusing on what's best for our students."
The next big question is - what will the new mascot imagery be? That won't be answered overnight, but Bond hopes that the Savannah student body has a big say in the decision.
"While this is a community issue, the mascot belongs to our students," she said. "So, we'd like our student input to be the strongest voice in that conversation."
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