Rebel mascot issue likely a top issue in 2016 Fort Smith school board election

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 399 views 

A victory lap on the new Southside High School Mavericks name and logo may be premature.

Two Fort Smith School Board positions will be up for reelection on Sept. 20, 2016, those of Susan McFerran (zone 2) and David Hunton (at-large). The filing period for these two races is from July 5-12 of next year with petitions for candidacy launching on June 12. Candidates will need to obtain signatures of 20 registered voters living in the Fort Smith School District and, if applicable, to the zone in which they are running to be considered.

While voters will know more about potential opposing candidates around those times, Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen has admitted that “at least one” person talked to him about pursuing one of the positions.

The controversial and often emotional process to change the mascot began in late June with a School Board committee vote. The Fort Smith Public School Board then 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 Board voted 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.

In November, a mascot committee selected Mavericks as the new mascot and also approved a new logo.

McCutchen, who championed keeping the Rebels name worn by Southside High School for 53 years, would not divulge the name of the person or the position they are considering. He also stopped short of saying the Rebels name was the individual’s primary motivation, but did indicate the School Board hasn’t heard the last of the issue. He also said the potential candidate was “probably tied into the Rebel issue because people are upset with transparency.”

“We may not always agree, but we need candidates, who are willing to take stands on issues, and I would like to see a School Board candidate, who is going to be supportive of having another vote on the Rebel issue,” McCutchen said in recent comments to Talk Business & Politics.

McCutchen filed a lawsuit challenging how the School Board voted on the mascot change earlier in 2015. It was recently dismissed by Sebastian County Circuit Judge James Cox, but McCutchen has since filed motions for reconsideration, a new trial, and to vacate.

“He has not entered a ruling, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to,” McCutchen said of Judge Cox. “But it’s safe to say a notice of appeal has been prepared and procedurally we’re making sure it’s done the right way. We will be appealing the case to the appellate courts, and it’s one I think we’ll win.”

In a vote at the Sept. 28 School Board meeting, newly elected Board member Wade Gilkey presented a motion to rebrand the Rebels name, but that effort ultimately failed 3-3 with Gilkey joined by fellow freshman Board member Bill Hanesworth and Hunton in voting to keep the name. Yvonne Keaton-Martin, Deanie Mehl, and Jeannie Cole voted against it, while McFerran was not in attendance, but had previously voted to end its use.

McCutchen said he believes Hunton could survive the coming election because his vote to rebrand the Rebels name was “reasonable” and showed a willingness to compromise with what he believes the majority of Fort Smith voters want.

The questions remaining — which Talk Business & Politics posed to Gilkey and Hanesworth — are these: 1) Do you anticipate a new Board pursuing the name change back to Rebels? 2) If so, would you consider voting for Rebels or would you be in favor of keeping Mavericks? 3) Would that be a vote that you would request bringing before the Board, or do you believe the Board should move on and let the issue rest?

Neither Hanesworth nor Gilkey were eager to weigh in. Gilkey did not respond to Talk Business & Politics’ outreach efforts, and Hanesworth simply said, “from my perspective it is too early to start speculation about the mascot next year.”

For McCutchen, the “fair thing to do would be to have a citywide vote on it at the same time of the millage election.” This, he believes, would help the School Board “regain credibility,” and potentially ward off the “big time opposition” he predicts is coming with September’s millage vote. 

In the meantime, the Fort Smith School District will commence removing the Rebels name and logos from school properties, jerseys, and printed materials, something McCutchen implied was irresponsible. 

“If they do the responsible thing they’ll wait on it, but they’re going to go ahead and make all these changes,” he acknowledged, adding that if the name is changed back to Rebels, “I’ll get private folks to raise private dollars to put that turf down and make the necessary changes.” 

While it’s unclear how much the full name change and rebranding will cost, estimates presented to the School Board on July 27 showed that changing facility signage could cost up to $90,000 and that if all uniforms were replaced at once, the cost would be around $160,000. 

However, according to District Superintendent Dr. Benny Gooden, 30% to 40% of uniforms are replaced annually, reducing the cost attributed to the mascot change to around $200,000. Money spent on the conversion is not expected to come from future millage proceeds, and Gooden believes the district has “sufficient funds to cover” the changes and will not have to use future state or local funds on the issue.

Since the changes are expected to begin in the 2016-2017 school year, the name and mascot change would be fully enacted by the time a new School Board could revisit the issue.