Fort Smith School Board president says district can ‘move forward’ with mascot issue settled; will not seek re-election

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 495 views 

Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl said the decisions by School Board Members Wade Gilkey and Bill Hanesworth to oppose any effort to change the Southside High School mascot back to the Rebel are good for the future of the district and community.

Hanesworth on Friday (May 27) joined fellow Gilkey in announcing he would not support any effort to overturn the controversial mascot change at Southside High School. Hanesworth and Gilkey were considered two board members supportive of changing the mascot back to the Rebel. They supported a September 2015 board vote to return to the Rebel mascot. The vote failed on a 3-3 vote.

The Fort Smith Public School Board voted 7-0 on July 27, 2015, to change the mascot and end use of the “Dixie” fight song 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. A “Maverick” mascot has been adopted, and “Wabash Cannonball” is the new fight song.

The decisions by Gilkey and Hanesworth resulted in Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen deciding to “suspend my fight for the REBEL tradition at Southside.”

“I am thrilled for our community. I think now we can finally move forward. This went far beyond the Fort Smith public schools, because it impacted the entire community,” Mehl told Talk Business & Politics in a Friday afternoon interview, adding that she is “proud of Wade, and I’m proud of Bill, because it can not be easy for them.”

Fort Smith School Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl
Fort Smith School Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl

Mehl, who will have served 11 years on the board come September and two years as board president, also said she appreciates community actions to support the mascot change.

“This has revived my faith in the River Valley that we are moving forward,” she said.

However, she said it is sad the controversy resulted in earlier-than-expected retirements of Superintendent Benny Gooden and Athletic Director Jim Rowland.

“Would they have retired in the coming years? Probably. But for them to do that (retire) just to try and put an end to the mascot conflict … that breaks my heart,” Mehl said, adding that the district “lost two titans.”

The impact of the mascot controversy is not over. Mehl believes the issue will make it difficult for the school to boost the millage rate in a planned April 2017 vote. The district hopes to raise around $80 million for broad facility improvements and other measures.

“There is a percentage of the population who say they will never vote for the millage because of the Rebel. I just don’t understand that mentality … to penalize every student in the Fort Smith public schools because of the mascot. I don’t understand that mentality, I really don’t,” she said.

She said it will be the board’s responsibility to educate voters about the many issues related to the millage, including teacher pay and the existing millage rate compared to other 7A schools.

Mehl also said she will not seek reelection when her term is up in 2017. She said 12 years is enough, and the board needs “new blood.” To that point, she said one positive to come out of the mascot issue is “the community has gotten engaged on both sides” with the challenges and opportunities facing the district. She is hopeful the engagement results in more contested board races among younger people who have children in the system.