A report delivered to an ad hoc committee of the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners found that the board acted properly when adopting “Ravens” as its new mascot and sports team name.
On Thursday evening, attorney Christopher Leopold, of the Burlington-based firm McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, discussed his findings with the committee.
After nearly a year of contentious debate about the retirement of the “Raider” name and arrowhead logo and adoption of “Ravens,” Board Chair Hurley Cavacas formed the ad hoc committee in June with the charge to:
— Determine the procedures that were followed during the board’s prior action to change the Rutland City Public Schools mascot and report on what occurred, when it occurred and how it occurred.
— Consult with any needed experts on Robert’s Rules of Order to identify whether the process was carried out correctly and, if not, what are the consequences? (Robert’s Rules is a manual of parliamentary procedure used by organizations to govern meetings.)
— Report to the board the facts, results and conclusions of the committee’s research.
— Answer the question of whether the board’s prior action(s) and decision(s) can be properly revisited or reconsidered and, if so, how?
— Make recommendations to the board on what next steps might be considered proper, knowing that only the board has the authority to act on these issues.
Cavacas tapped Commissioners Ann Dages, Dena Goldberg, Charlene Seward and Stephanie Stoodley to serve on the committee.
The committee was not formed to make recommendations about the mascot itself nor to debate the merits of one mascot over another — a fact Committee Chair Goldberg restated at Thursday’s meeting.
While this was the first time the committee met to discuss it, the report had already been made available to media last month by Commissioner Alison Notte.
According to the report, the board’s action to adopt a new mascot is “a binding action of the board.”
The report noted several “errors and deviations” from Robert’s Rules, but stated they were not “sufficiently fatal to the board actions to adopt a new mascot nor were individual school commissioners disadvantaged by the process.”
Last October, commissioners voted 6-4 to retire the “Raider” name and arrowhead logo, deeming it offensive and hurtful to Indigenous Americans. In February, the board approved “Ravens” to replace it, also by a vote of 6-4.
However, after the election of a slate of pro-Raider School Board candidates in March, the former name and logo are back on the table.
On Thursday, Leopold said his team reviewed video recordings and minutes from a total of nine board meetings, with particular attention paid to three meetings directly related to the mascot issue.
Leopold said there was no violation of either Vermont Open Meeting Law or Robert’s Rules in relation to how the mascot vote was warned, noting that meeting agendas are not required to specify whether an item is up for discussion or action.
He then clarified confusion around the use of a “friendly amendment” at the Oct. 20, 2020, meeting.
At the time, Commissioner Erin Shimp attempted to use a friendly amendment to modify Commissioner Kevin Kiefaber’s motion to retire the “Raider” name and arrowhead so it would only retire the arrowhead. Kiefaber rejected Shimp’s amendment.
Leopold said while inconsistent with Robert’s Rules, the practice of making friendly amendments is “very common throughout Vermont.” He added that it also appeared to be a practice the City School Board had “followed for years.”
“From our perspective, we don’t think that that substantively created a defect in board action that night,” he said.
Leopold next addressed Shimp’s attempt to rescind the Oct. 20 vote at the following board meeting Nov. 10. The report found that Notte incorrectly characterized Shimp’s motion as a motion to “reconsider” rather than to “rescind.” The former motion must be made by a member who voted in the affirmative on the motion in question; the latter can be made by any member regardless of their vote.
However, Leopold explained that a vote to rescind is intended to address “a matter that requires emergency action on the part of the board,” and must be warned on an agenda. If the item isn’t warned, Robert’s Rules requires either a two-thirds vote of the board or a majority vote of the entire board membership — not just those present at a given meeting. Leopold noted the latter condition didn’t exist at the Nov. 10 meeting.
“Ultimately, the decision in not to consider it that evening was proper,” he said.
He added that Shimp or any other commissioner could have brought a motion to rescind to the board at subsequent meetings between Nov. 10, 2020, and Feb. 9, 2021, but none did so.
Finally, Leopold reported that the action taken to adopt the “Ravens” as the new mascot on Feb. 9 was “done consistent with Robert’s Rules of Order.”
“We think, on balance, (then-Board Chair Notte) ran a fair and a procedurally fair series of meetings that provided all board members the opportunity for input, comment, an opportunity to make motions, an opportunity to make amendments for motions and for action to be taken relative to those,” he said.
Following Leopold’s report, the committee unanimously agreed to accept the report’s findings that the name change was done properly and bring it to the full board.
“Whatever happens next, it’s up to the full board,” Goldberg said.
The committee also agreed to suggest the board discuss Leopold’s recommendation to adopt Robert’s Rules for small boards, which grants more procedural flexibility.
Dages inquired about the total cost of the investigation, which Superintendent Bill Olsen reported was $2,411. He noted that Leopold only charged the board for 10 hours of work, despite spending closer to 18 hours on it.
At the end of the meeting, Stoodley read a prepared statement in which she asked for Notte’s resignation from the board for releasing the report before the committee had a chance to discuss it.
“As an ad hoc committee member and member of the board, I find it appalling that Commissioner Notte released the report. Her actions continue to show her lack of respect for the oath she took,” Stoodley said, claiming Notte’s actions violated Board Operating Protocols.
Notte, who was in attendance Thursday, responded to Stoodley stating, “This is a public document funded by public taxpayer dollars. And it is not just the purview of this committee, it is a purview of the public that spent $2,500, needlessly, on a witch hunt to try and say that something was done wrong on my behalf.”
Notte has previously alleged that she has been the target of a “witch hunt” led by Cavacas.
In May, former Commissioner Joanne Pencak also alleged that Cavacas had told her he was going to get revenge on Notte for running against him for the board chair seat.
At the time, Pencak provided the Herald with a text message exchange between her and Cavacas from last year in which he expressed his intention to make things difficult for Notte on the board, stating, “I’m polish (sic) I don’t get mad I get even.”
On Thursday, Goldberg said she would not entertain a “back and forth.”
“This is not the place or time for it. We had a clear objective of our mission. You know, we can have a difference of opinion in terms of how we do things, but this is not where it needs to be brought up,” she said.
The full School Board meets next at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 28.