Attorney says costs to change rebel mascot higher than officials estimated

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 233 views 

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen is not giving up on his effort to push back against the move now underway to change the mascot and fight song at Southside High School. On Tuesday (Aug. 4), McCutchen said documents he obtained from the Fort Smith Public School District show a cost for the changes that is higher than what school district officials have estimated.

The Fort Smith Public School Board voted 7-0 on July 27 to change the mascot and end use of the “Dixie” fight song that has been associated with the school since it opened in 1963. The vote was a culmination of a process that began June 23 when a committee of the School Board voted 6-0 to discontinue use of “Dixie” as the Southside High School fight song in the 2015-2016 school year and to drop the Rebel as the Southside mascot in the 2016-2017 school year.

Southside High School was formed in 1963 and over the years there have been attempts to change the mascot. One of those happened in the late 1980s when a school board committee pushed for a change. The effort failed to gain support from a majority of those then on the Board.

The change was fueled in large part by the national discussion about racial imagery following the tragedy in Charleston, S.C., in which nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church were shot and killed by Dylan Roof.

During the July 27 meeting, District Superintendent Dr. Benny Gooden said initial estimates showed that changing facility signage could cost up to $90,000. He said if all uniforms are replaced at once, the cost would be around $160,000. However, he said 30% to 40% of uniforms are replaced annually, which would reduce the cost attributed to the mascot change. He said the bottom line on a conversion cost would be around $200,000.

Documents McCutchen obtained from the school district through a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that costs for new uniforms, banners, facility signage and a long list of other items totals $264,772.55. The costs include $66,695 for football uniforms, $38,000 for changing the end zone turf at the football field, and $17,000 for the center football field turf. (Link here for a PDF of the document showing the costs.) In an interview with The City Wire, McCutchen said he doubts the district has included all costs. He also “reliable” persons have told him the gym floor may need more than just an $18,000 refinish job.

“If they have to do that (replace part or all of the floor), that could be a very significant cost,” McCutchen said.

Prior to the July 27 meeting, McCutchen had alleged that the costs related to changing the mascot could be as high as $1 million. McCutchen was unwilling on Tuesday to provide The City Wire with an estimate on what he thought the costs would be.

District employee Kim Epperson indicated in an e-mail obtained by McCutchen that the costs could rise.

“Here is what will have to be replaced and dollar amounts. I am sure there will be more added as we start to change,” Epperson said in an e-mail note to district employee Charles Warren.

To that point, the list of athletic uniform changes does not include costs for changing volleyball uniforms. The Southside High School girls volleyball team mascot is now the “Confederettes.”

The total cost related to the Board vote to change the mascot may not be known until the process is finished. Zena Featherson, spokeswoman for the school district, said they are working with estimates because there are still too many unknowns – like a decision on the new mascot and associated imagery – to push out hard costs. Also, as Gooden noted on July 27, uniform replacements and changes happen annually, and up to 40% of the total cost could be expenses the district would have faced without a mascot change.

In addition to the debate about costs, McCutchen continues to allege that the Board at its June 23 meeting violated Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act law on public meetings. He is not sure what legal remedies there may be, and doubts any remedy will change the mascot change vote, but wants to ensure the Board is held accountable.

“I think the decision that they made … is probably not going to change. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a violation. Because there needs to be teeth to the Freedom of Information Act,” McCutchen said. “Government needs to do its business in the open. This is about a much bigger principle, and that’s an American principle that our government does our business openly.”