Voters hoping for a turnaround on the Fort Smith School Board's decision to nix the "Rebels" mascot change for Southside High School may be in for a disappointment as new members Bill Hanesworth and Wade Gilkey take their seats on the seven-member group.
Both men won in landslides over incumbents Russell Owen and Rick Wade Tuesday night (Sept. 15). But while sympathetic to the cause, they also realize they are only two on a Board that in July decided 7-0 to ditch the Rebels name, the Johnny Reb mascot, and the "Dixie" fight song. They also say there are more positive things they want to pursue.
"I think they made their decision," Hanesworth said, noting that it would be "decided in court now," a reference to the lawsuit underway asking the Sebastian County Circuit Court to block school officials from spending money on a mascot/name change.
The lawsuit was filed by Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen on behalf of city resident June Bradshaw in early September 2015.
"They decided it 7-0," Gilkey added. "Best case scenario, we're now looking at 5-2, so clearly we don't have the votes to turn it around."
What Gilkey and Hanesworth both advocated in separate interviews with The City Wire was a compromise that would keep the Rebels nickname while abandoning the Johnny Reb mascot and "Dixie" fight song, which some have deemed racist.
"There's room for a compromise on the Rebels nickname," Hanesworth said. "It doesn't have to be lose-lose. You take away those two things [Johnny Reb and 'Dixie'], and the connotation will go away."
Gilkey took issue with the depiction of Rebels supporters as "racist" for wanting to keep the name and admonishing people, who've tried drawing comparisons between Rebels supporters and segregationists/Jim Crow law supporters.
"It's a cartoon symbol," Gilkey said. "This is not segregation. We're losing our sense of proportion here."
For Gilkey, the name change is just one part of a bigger issue that exists between the Fort Smith School Board and the voting public. He deemed the Board "lucky" for getting voters to increase millage rates Tuesday night, but felt that another planned increase in 2016 might not be as fortunate if the School Board doesn't start listening to what voters want.
"This is not me. It's people I've talked to. Issues like this aren't going away. There's anger and a sense of disconnect from voters toward the School Board, and that can be seen in the results. Almost 80 percent of voters said, 'We're not happy with the status quo.' There has been continual erosion of public trust, and this is where your support comes from."
However, Fort Smith voters on Tuesday approved the annual extension of the 36.5 mills that have been in place since 1987. A millage increase was not on the ballot.
Gilkey and Hanesworth said they wanted the School District to heal from this fight, but were uncertain of how easy it would be if the Board didn't start opening up to compromise. However, neither man wanted the issue to define their service on the School Board.
"It's sucking the air out of a lot of positive things," Gilkey said, pointing to the Future School of Fort Smith charter school planned to open August 2016 as an example.
"It isn't why I ran," Hanesworth said, adding that the arguments as to what to do with the Rebels nickname and any areas for compromise may be a moot point if the 29-person committee appointed to find a new mascot decides on an alternate name.
Gilkey and Hanesworth are supportive of the charter school, something the Board has been hesitant to endorse largely due to uncertainty over how it will affect the District's revenue.
An application for Future School was filed July 28 with the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE). Trish Flanagan, director of the effort, and other charter school supporters will on Oct. 14 present the plant to state education officials in Little Rock. With charter approval, the school would begin in 2016 with 150 students in 10th grade, and would add 15 students and a grade each year until by year three the school would be home to grades 10-12 and 450 students. Funding for the school would come from the Arkansas Department of Education.
School Board members grilled Flanagan and charter school supporters during a Monday (Sept. 14) committee meeting. Most Board members are concerned about the money that the district would lose if the charter is approved. Because the charter school is open enrollment, students from any school district in the state may attend. If by year four there are 400 of the 450 students from the Fort Smith School District, the district would see a reduction in state funds of around $2.7 million.
The School Board is expected to vote Sept. 28 on whether to endorse, oppose or remain neutral on the charter school application.
For Hanesworth, the money concern iss the wrong one to have.
"Instead of fighting change, we need to learn how to embrace it and influence it," he said, noting that "charter schools are going to happen." He also foresaw a day in the not-too-distant future when online learning could become an option at the high school level.
"Technology is changing and becoming more of a factor in education, and I'm one of these people, who says, 'Why not? Why can't I learn like that?'" Hanesworth said.
Gilkey called the Future School concept "utterly fantastic."
"I can't understand why anyone would be opposed to it. It's all about the kids and the teachers and serving them. It's not about me, it’s not about (School Superintendent) Dr. (Benny) Gooden, it's not about the Board of Directors. The charter school is going to be good for these kids. When a kid can start in 10th grade and graduate high school with an associates degree and work experience, why wouldn't you be for that?"
Gilkey accused a local teachers' federation of fighting it "because it's a threat to them.”
“They're in it for themselves,” he added. “I'm in it for the kids.”
Gilkey has three children and is hosting a foreign exchange student from Germany. He would like to see Fort Smith be a place they come back to.
"We've got to stop losing the talent we have."
THE 'TO-DO' LIST
Echoing Gilkey's "lucky" comment regarding passage of the millage increase, Hanesworth said he was "afraid the millage wouldn't pass," but was pleasantly surprised that it did. Now that it has, one of the top things on his "to-do list" is to focus on the 2016 budget. This was also a concern for Gilkey, who said he wanted to "understand where this $154 million budget comes from, where it's going, and get more of that money into the classroom to support teachers and students."
Hanesworth also wanted the Board to do a better job of opening up the lines of communication among administrators, teachers, parents, and students.
For Gilkey, this is one of the key challenges as well.
"The community is demanding the school system become more responsive to their needs. You'll go a long way in repairing some of the conflicts just by listening to people.”
He said, historically, the Board had an attitude of thinking that if it ignored something long enough — citing the charter school as an example — it would eventually go away. But with Tuesday night’s vote, he believes voters sent a clear message they’re not being heard, and he hopes to change that in his first term.