Fort Smith School Board candidates talk mascot change, school expansion

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 245 views 

Challenger Bill Hanesworth and incumbent Fort Smith School Board member Rick Wade will square off in one of two contested races on Tuesday (Sept. 15). One issue that isn’t ready to die just yet is that of the Southside Rebels mascot change.

While Wade acknowledged his “voice has been heard” in the 7-0 vote to go ahead with dropping the Johnny Reb mascot as well as the Rebels name and the “Dixie” fight song, Hanesworth felt many voices were not being heard.

“I am personally disappointed in the process and deeply concerned as to how this issue has polarized our community,” Hanesworth said. “My thoughts are this does not need to be a lose/lose scenario. I think there is room for compromise where both perspectives can be recognized and respected for their views.”

The latest attempt to oppose the change of the mascot and fight song at Southside High School hinges upon a difference between an official mascot and a “nickname,” according to an injunction filed Sept. 1 seeking to prevent the Fort Smith Public School District from removing “Rebels” from school grounds and other uses.

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen filed a motion for injunctive relief with the Sebastian County Circuit Court. Filing on behalf of Fort Smith resident June Bradshaw, the filing asks the court to block school officials from spending money on a mascot change or blocking use of the “Rebels” nickname. McCutchen notes in the filing that injunctive relief is necessary because the issue is one “on which public input and comment was never solicited or invited and was never voted upon whatsoever by the governing body of the Fort Smith Public Schools.”

Wade defended his and the Board’s decision to drop the nickname in his recent comments to The City Wire.

“Our response was not ‘knee jerk’ as some have erroneously asserted,” Wade said. “As The City Wire has pointed out, and as was noted by citizens the night our Board voted, the issue of the Confederate symbols at a public school has been the source of discussion from inception and has been periodically questioned over the ensuing years. The time was ripe to remove what, perhaps, should not have been done in the first instance in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision on integration of Little Rock Central High in 1962 (as SHS was being built).”

Wade continued: “As the father of a former SHS cheerleader and honor graduate, I know that the accomplishments of a nationally recognized school and its students and alumni will NEVER be diminished simply because a nickname and some symbols were changed. Personally, with two post-graduate degrees from the University of Arkansas, I don't think I'll ever miss saying a ‘woo, pig sooie’ because someone, once upon a time, decided to change the name from Arkansas Cardinals to Arkansas Razorbacks.”

Another topic that promises to command attention from the new School Board will be that of Future School of Fort Smith, which has been planned for an August 2016 opening. The Board has been hesitant to show support for the charter school.

Zena Featherston, spokeswoman for the Fort Smith Public School District, said Superintendent Benny Gooden had asked School Board members if they wanted to oppose, support or remain neutral on the charter application. In comments published by the Times Record, Gooden expressed some of his own concerns about the financial loss the school might impose on the district — a concern that Wade shares.

“I have said repeatedly that, while I recognize there are school districts in distress in Arkansas and around the nation, the Fort Smith School District is not in that category,” Wade said. “Our graduates and their accomplishments prove that year after year. Our District has existing programs (some in collaboration with UAFS) that provide a wide range of educational opportunities for our students. We are open to suggestions for future improvements and innovative programs. We teach everyone, not just a chosen few. Consequently, anytime a new program proposes to take away a million or more tax dollars from an already accomplished and recognized school district, I am hesitant and cautious.”

Hanesworth seemed more open to the idea, acknowledging that “the speed of change in educating children is about to undergo a dramatic paradigm change.”

“We have to acknowledge alternative ways of learning,” he explained. “The advances in access to information and alternate venues for learning are currently expanding all around us. We must accept that people learn differently and, when possible, provide that opportunity. So my premise is if you accept change is coming then why not be part of the process? Change is inevitable. We can be impacted by it as bystanders or we can actively participate and mold our future.”

Future School of Fort Smith will be based on three “pillars,” according to Trish Flanagan, a driving force behind the effort to open the school next year. Those are “real world collaboration,” “project-based learning,” and the use of integrated technologies. Flanagan said she is “meeting with a lot of different people,” including the business community, officials with the Fort Smith Public School District and a teacher’s group representative to get the ball rolling. (Read more about how the charter school will work at this link.)

The City Wire also asked Hanesworth and Wade to break down what they felt would be some of the central issues facing the Fort Smith School Board in its post-election alignment.

“The old adage ‘perception is reality’ was never more true in the current situation where transparency and accessibility must be improved,” Hanesworth said, adding that the District also faced “significant budget issues” that could require “some very hard decisions.”

“It is time to reinvest in facilities and resources. The question will be how? The budget decisions must be fact based,” Hanesworth said. He also believed the Board could play a role in improving community involvement with schools and that, in addition to developing alternative learning venues (such as Future School), the Board would need to continue its focus on making schools safer for students.

Wade seemed to share concern over the District’s financial operations.

“For the moment, any plans to construct a new facility (whatever it might be called) at Chaffee are on the ‘back burner,’ but that does not mean, however, that the District's needs don't continue. Our Board has plans for major additions or improvements at approximately seven of our campuses, including SHS [Southside]. Those ongoing needs cost money, and with a millage rate that hasn't changed in about 30 years, and is significantly lower than surrounding or comparable districts, that task is not easy.”

Wade said the reaction of some Fort Smith residents to this in the face of the mascot change has been surprising, and not always in a good way.

“That is, for someone even to suggest they would not support a proposed millage increase because of the Board's decision regarding ‘Dixie’ and the Rebel mascot and symbols is, to me, difficult to understand.”

He also believes that keeping up with technology will be an ongoing concern, stating “the challenge remains to equip our student with the technology and the know-how to compete in what has become a global economy.”

The School Board election will be held Sept. 15. In addition to the Wade-Hanesworth race, Wade Gilkey is challenging incumbent Russell Owen, and incumbent Yvonne Keaton-Martin is running unopposed.

(NOTE: The City Wire reached out to Russell Owen and Wade Gilkey for participation in this piece, but did not receive responses.)