Savannah mascot discussion

Michaela Lent, a 2011 Savannah High School graduate, spoke in favor of changing the school’s mascot during last month's Savannah R-III Board of Education meeting in the school’s gymnasium.

SAVANNAH, Mo. — It’s been more than three weeks since 33 community members and advocates stood before the Savannah R-III Board of Education at the district’s high school last month to argue for or against a mascot change for the building they stood in — the home of the Savages.

While a majority of the meeting’s attendees who took the mic behind a lectern in the Savannah High School gymnasium last month spoke in favor of a mascot change — one that a majority of Savannah’s residents, more than 95 percent of whom are white, oppose — many opponents to the change, as well as some supporters and school district officials, raised concerns then and now about the potential cost of replacing a mascot and nickname that have been in place for more than 100 years.

Noah Duncan, a Savannah High School student who spoke at the meeting, reminded the board of the gymnasium floor underneath their feet — one with the nickname painted on it that the district spent tens of thousands of dollars installing only a few years ago. And Diane Gould, a parent who took the mic in the meeting’s late-going last month, said she had shifted from opposing the change to supporting it, citing outside pressures and attention on the city she said would continue to grow, but she challenged the advocates who brought up the issue to figure out how to pay for it.

So that’s what those organizers are doing.

Luke Bishop, a member of the board of directors for Stand Up Savannah — the advocacy group that grew out of the original online petition calling for the school district to change the mascot — said the group is willing and prepared to walk alongside the school board when, not if, the district decides to act on the issue. The group, Bishop said, doesn’t intend to ditch the district when it commits to changing the mascot.

But Bishop emphasized that before Savannah can begin to consider the potential monetary cost of scrubbing the Savages moniker from the school’s vernacular and changing the mascot, a depiction of a Native American man posted throughout the school’s campus, the district must first acknowledge the offensive nature of the mascot and express an intent to move on from it.

“The things we’re asking for right now just don’t actually cost any money,” Bishop said. “We’re asking for the school district to admit it’s problematic, we’re asking them to stop putting the mascot on any future events or merchandise or anything like that.”

The asks from Stand Up Savannah represent a first step for both organizers and the district in what Bishop concedes will be a long process. While advocates at last month’s board meeting called for immediate action, demanding the board vote on the potential mascot change then, Savannah R-III Board of Education President Stacy Bond said she didn’t expect to have a plan of action in place for a potential mascot change until October, and that it would it take six to 12 months for the issue to be resolved — a timeline organizers seem to have yielded to.

As a part of the next steps Stand Up Savannah organizers hope to see Savannah take, Bishop — who’s become familiar with the course of action taken in Hiawatha, Kansas, where the district the changed its mascot in 2000 — said before the board needs to form a research committee to explore the issue, and with it, the cost.

Bishop highlighted the fact that other districts around the country have replaced their mascots organically, only updating uniforms and equipment on an as-needed basis, a strategy that would off-load some of the up-front cost of the kind of sweeping change many counter-organizers have envisioned.

And Bishop noted that a significant portion of the cost would come from “four or five” big-ticket items, such as Savannah’s gymnasium floor, which likely won’t need to be replaced organically for more than a decade and will cost upwards of $20,000 to transition.

But largely, Bishop said, the changes that could be made in the immediate future — if and when the district decides to act — would not break the bank.

“At the end of the day, that’s paint on a wall,” Bishop said after describing a mural recently plastered to one of the wall’s in the high school depicting a sort-of history of Savannah’s mascots over the last century or so. “That’s not very expensive to go and change.”

The phrase “not very expensive” could be key to Bond and the board as they navigate how to move forward on a shoe-string budget. The district was reeling amid somewhat of a budget crisis before the mascot issue popped up on the board’s meeting agenda in July. The district, Bond said then, is in desperate need of money for maintenance as they fund important projects at a trickle.

Twice in the last 12 months, Savannah has placed a tax levy on the Andrew County ballot, asking voters to approve a 69 cent tax increase that would sunset in 10 years but provide vital funding for the district. County residents voted down the measure twice, leaving the district hanging and leaving Bond frustrated as she tries to navigate a path forward without the support of the same residents who reelected her this year.

“That’s an interesting concept, isn’t it?” Bond said in July. “How could they support us as candidates, but yet not support the things we believe are important for our school?

While Bond said plainly that Savannah R-III doesn’t “have extra money” for a mascot change, she was also adamant that the budget issue couldn’t stop the district from moving forward with a potential mascot change, even if the district doesn’t have the means to pay for it.

And perhaps that’s because Bond recognizes the cost of not changing the mascot could be greater in the long haul.

Bond said after the July board meeting that she agreed with a number of the meeting’s attendees, including Gould, who suggested failing to act now would bring national pressure to the Andrew County town of 5,000.

In the weeks since the board heard arguments on the issue, The Kansas City Star has reported on the matter, and much of the paper’s reporting was repackaged in a separate piece in The New York Post.

And in the weeks since the board meeting, a letter penned by the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media penned this letter to Bond calling the removal for the name “Savages” by Aug. 12, 2020, one that threatened to file legal complaints with several state officials under the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s unclear if the nickname violates the article, which protects against discrimination. The letter is dated July 6 — eight days before Bond established the multi-month timeline after the July 14 meeting.

Bond directed follow-up interview requests for this story to a Savannah R-III communications director, Jess Gillette. Gillette did not respond to an interview request.

Despite the slow-moving process that seems destined to accompany any potential change, Bishop said organizers intend to see it through. They’re committed to helping crowd-fund the mascot change they see as imminent.

In recent years, other schools have received funding support from both Adidas and Nike, Bishop said, though it’s unclear if either company still offers the programs designed to help schools with mascot changes. Some districts have received grant funding. One school, in Michigan, was awarded aid from a Native American coalition.

Bishop, of course, isn’t sure what the ultimate cost of what the mascot change will be. He’s still waiting on the district — one of less than 20 nationwide still clinging to the Savages moniker — to commit to catching up.

“Change on this issue only seems to be moving in one direction,” he said.