Fort Smith School Board president bids farewell after 12 years, Rebels controversy

by Aric Mitchell ( 1,154 views 

Fort Smith School Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl stepped away from her post for the first time in 12 years on Monday night (Sept. 25) during the Board’s regular meeting.

Mehl started her tenure as a Board member in 2005, and she served as president in 2009, 2010, and from 2014-2017. She acknowledged the last two years were her most contentious, brought on by the unanimous decision she presided over to retire the Rebels mascot at Southside High School.

“It’s been a privilege to serve on the Board the last 12 years and an honor to be the president the last three,” Mehl said in farewell comments, adding that “It’s no secret the last two years have been challenging for all of us, but in spite of the fact it has been challenging, we’ve had tremendous support from members of the community as well as members of the administration.”

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

Mehl said she had thousands of letters, emails, and text messages voicing support for her and other Board members in the wake of the controversial 2015 decision.

“One thing our community should be very proud of, is the fact that, despite the passion seen on both sides of this issue, we never saw the next step which we’ve seen in other communities, and that’s violence.”

“I’m not going to say it was always a respectful disagreement, but I do think that as a community, we can be very proud of the fact that we always kept it civil.”

Mehl said she would miss being on the Board, but believed the decision to step away was correct “by the fact our election came and went and there was virtually no toxicity, no opposed races, in spite of the fact that one of our PC4 ran for reelection,” Mehl said referring to a derogatory term some detractors had used to describe the four “politically correct” Board members who championed the mascot’s retirement.

Mehl concluded by stating she was “very excited about the future” and “what Dr. Brubaker has initiated.”

“I’m excited about the strategic plan, our building, our facility plans. I think we have a phenomenal future for our district as well as our community, and it’s because of all of you in this room,” Mehl said to a standing ovation.

One candidate has announced intent to run for Mehl’s At-Large post, Fort Smith attorney Greg Magness of Hardin, Jesson, & Terry, PLC. In May, Mehl was asked if she was ready to endorse anyone, and told Talk Business & Politics she likely would not.

“I’ve become something of a polarizing figure, and I’m not sure my endorsement would help,” Mehl explained. “I want someone who is coming on the board without an agenda, or whose only agenda would be what’s in the best interest of the public schools.”