SAVANNAH, Mo. — After spending months as the subject of intense criticism from both progressive activists and conservative community members, the Savannah R-III Board of Education voted Tuesday night to change the district’s mascot — phasing out the use of Native American imagery — while holding onto its “Savages” nickname.
The board voted 4-3 to move on from its current image — which features the head of a Native American with a partially painted face and a feather running through the figure’s hair — after more than 10 minutes of sometimes contentious discussion, along with months of intensive research into the topic, ultimately gave way to a compromise.
Many residents of the Andrew County town supported keeping both the Savages nickname and Native American imagery, while activists, including those from the Stand Up Savannah group that originally petitioned the board in June to change the mascot, hoped to have both the name and image eradicated.
Board member Joseph Barbosa, who first motioned for the board to consider the compromise, cast the tie-breaking vote. Barbosa’s “yes” vote signaled the beginning of the end of a monthslong saga that has divided the community and, at times, has brought hate and vitriol to board members who showed a public willingness to move on from the image or name, which has been in place since 1936.
“Thank you, Lord,” Board President Stancy Bond said after the meeting, reflecting on the months of commentary surrounding the issue that included threats and calls for her resignation. “It has not been really a fun discussion. Both sides are very passionate about their opinion and both sides have great points, but ultimately I think we’ve made a great decision and we’ve made a compromise and that’s what it’s all about.”
After several motions and amendments, the board eventually voted to retain the nickname while phasing out the use of the Native American mascot starting next school year.
Additionally, the board’s motion included specific directions to expand the district’s relationships with the Andrew County Museum and Historical Society as well as the Savannah Alumni Association to preserve district artifacts and mascot memorabilia. Bond said after meeting she expects students to be involved in selecting the district’s next mascot.
The board’s emphasis on preserving the mascot’s history — and the compromise as a whole — was in part thanks to a recommendation of the ad hoc mascot committee the board created and dispatched last fall. The committee presented month’s worth of exhaustive research March 22 to the board in a work session, providing a bevvy of documents and a binder of fiscal-related information but punting the divisive issue back to the board.
The board itself wasn’t immune to infighting over the mascot, a reality first mentioned Tuesday night by Savannah R-III Board of Education Vice President Rebecca Bledsoe, who voted to change the mascot and lamented the “hate” the topic had brought both in the community “and amongst each other.” Bledsoe made the comments to close a somewhat heated discussion between Barbosa, Bond and member Dyann Duncan after Duncan moved to leave the mascot issue up to voters in August’s public election.
In her motion seconded by member Than Wagers, Duncan said the mascot belonged to the community, not the board, and called on the board to carry out the will of the voters. After Barbosa asked whether voters should also then weigh in on hiring decisions, Duncan deferred to Superintendent Eric Kurre before Bond stepped in.
“I find it inherently irresponsible of us to divert this to the community,” Bond said. “They have made their choice in who they put on this board. To say that the mascot belongs to the community is one thing. But to not acknowledge that every single person that comes into contact with mascot is affected by this is irresponsible. And I think we were elected to make decisions and I think that we are fully capable and educated — we’ve taken the time to do the research — and I don’t think we should put this on the ballot.”
Community members first called for the issue to be decided by voters last July, when the board heard public comment on the issue in a combative meeting that stretched for close to two hours in the Savannah High School gymnasium. Meeting in the same gym Tuesday night, the board opted to field public comment electronically, publishing all 348 comments it received on the district website. Of those messages — which came from within and outside of the district’s boundary lines — Bond said more than 340 commenters advocated for at least partially changing the mascot. Five people called for both the mascot and nickname to remain.
In a vote that foreshadowed the board’s final ruling on the mascot issue, Jamin Sybert joined Duncan and Wagers in a failed attempt to send the fate of the school’s logo to voters, with Bond, Bledsoe, Barbosa and Linda Kozminski shooting the measure down 4-3.
After Duncan’s motion failed, Barbosa proposed a seven-point motion to the board on how to move forward, with four of the seven points being adopted into a final motion for consideration. The board opted to include the first two points — to keep the nickname and discontinue the use of Native American imagery — and the last two points, which dealt with the historical preservation.
The remaining aspects of Barbosa’s initial proposal — which involved school curriculum relating to the issue, finances and the process of identifying a new mascot altogether — were effectively tabled by the board to be discussed at length in future work sessions. The district’s ad hoc mascot committee — which projected the cost of rebranding at $500,000 — recommended the district replace uniforms and signage on an as-needed basis, while Stand Up Savannah has pledged to help identify grant funding to ease the financial toll rebranding will bring.
“I have had constituents from across our district argue this might be a way to go,” Barbosa said, referring to the seven-pronged compromise he proposed. “But I think, as we heard in my hesitancy, there is no perfect solution at this time.”
Wagers, who seconded Duncan’s motion to pass the issue on voters, made a last-ditch appeal to postpone the vote until all members could attend in person, with Sybert and Kozminski attending via phone. Citing the board’s own bylaws, Bond shot down the argument, leading to the board’s vote to phase out the use Native American imagery before the board entered recess.
After Bond addressed reporters in a Savannah High School hallway as most of the meeting’s attendees filed out of the building, the board resumed session and reorganized. Bledsoe was sworn in for a second term, while Deborah Wenzel was sworn in to replace Sybert.
As the board prepared to elect its next president, two names were presented: Barbosa and Bond, who was nominated by Kozminski. After spending the last 10 months as a lightning rod for criticism and as the public-facing voice of a district in distress, Bond respectfully withdrew her name from consideration. Barbosa, the only other nominee, was elected to replace her, though he only received six votes from the seven-member body.
Duncan had left the building. After failing to stop the removal of Native American imagery from the district, she resigned from the board.