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Stand up for the community

(Editor’s Note: The op-ed below is a speech the author gave at the Bellefonte Area School Board meeting on July 14 in regard to the district’s Red Raider mascot, as well as other issues. It appears here in its entirety.)

Normally, I am the board cheerleader and glue guy. Tonight, with love and respect, I am going to be the tough love guy. This is going to take some time, because the Board of Education getting involved with this issue at this time is that bad of an idea.

At last meeting some board members noted there is never a good time to start this discussion. This is true in isolation. But this does not justify doing it at the worst possible time.

Over the last four months the entire world has changed dramatically. Many of those in our community have lost jobs or been laid off. We were pent up at home for a shutdown for two months and still are subject to rolling social (physical) distancing interventions. We are a long time from knowing what the “new normal” will look like. It is not an exaggeration to say that people are more unsettled and unsure about their lives at this point than they have been in the last half century.

Along with this, people are in a heightened state of agitation. Somehow, wearing masks is partisan. This was not the time to enter into any kind of culture-based public discussion before the George Floyd incident. With the resulting protests and civil unrest everyone is already fully entrenched in their ideological corners.

If there was a real concern about the moniker or logo (and it highlights how hap hazard this has been that it was referred to initially as being about the mascot), common sense would dictate that bringing it up right now would be incredibly self-defeating. There simply is no way that a calm, reasonable discussion can occur right now. If that is what was intended.

While I know people who support this and agree with them on a lot of things, that we have repeatedly been told this needs to happen immediately should give us pause.

You don’t put a boat in the water during a category 5 hurricane. Unless your intention is to use this moment of national turmoil to try to bully this incredibly unpopular item through the board of education.

This is a moment when our community needs us to stand up for it. So, tonight I am calling on the board of education to join those of us on the board who are not willing to let us be bullied in this manner.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe anyone here mentioned looking at this in their CNET interviews or in their LOWVs voter guide profiles while running. I have no memory of a single mention of this in our discussions of what our agenda should be or in any public meetings prior to the change.org petition being dropped.

We had a full plate of big ticket, medium ticket and small ticket items we were working on before COVID- 19 blew it all up. It makes no sense to take on this kind of complicated, emotionally charged and divisive discussion simply because we woke up one morning with a bunch of emails in our inboxes. That just is not good educational leadership.

Our focus should be 101% on what our instruction will look like five weeks from now. Being honest, we did not hit it out the park when we had the shutdown. Some voiced their thoughts about it, but by and large our community gave us a pass, looking toward the new school year. If we get it right it will be water under the bridge. If we don’t we will justifiably be held to account.

The most common thing I hear or read from people since this came up is that they have no idea why we would even be considering this right now with the upcoming school year so uncertain. It really should have universally been shut down two meetings ago.

Tonight, I appeal to my fellow board members to join those of us who want to reassure the community that we are fully focused on the monumental task of ensuring the education of our students with the daunting, ongoing specter of the pandemic hanging over us.

For over a year now this board has gone to great lengths to build up the community’s trust in our leading the effort to address the elementary schools. We know that when all the facts are in, there might be a disconnect between what will be in the best interests of our students and what the community is comfortable with.

Why on earth would we put ourselves in a position to turn the community against us over this and jeopardize our effort to do what would be the most impactful thing many of us will have done in our lives — something that will meaningfully benefit every student that comes through this district for decades.

We still are trying to run a Capital Campaign. How is it going to work appealing to alumni’s pride and identity to give money to upgrade our athletic facilities when in many of their eyes we are working to erase all of that. While we were so fortunate to have Mrs. Burnaford available to step up when COVID-19 submarined our Superintendent search. This is another incredibly important, pressing matter we need to attend to that requires the community’s faith and support.

Tonight, I appeal to my fellow board members to join those of us who want us to stay focused and expend our time, attention and good will to address the many agenda items that got derailed by COVID-19.

This Board is under attack. This district is under attack. Our community is under attack. We are being pressured sold on changing the mascot based on the “logic” that people have stuck their hand in a hornet’s nest, smashed it over their head and because they are getting stung we have to do what they want us to do to do now.

At the last meeting we had a number of non-residents show up to speak to the board, some who probably have never stepped foot in Centre County before. I can’t begin to relay how incredibly disturbing it was when many of those in attendance cheered when one of these people stood at that podium and implied that if we did not change the mascot we would be sued into submission to do so. The headline for the Statecollege.com story covering this was “Bellefonte – Pride or Racism.”

The change.org petition references:

That is how they are portraying us, our district, our community.

Lost in the heat of battle is how mean spirited this pressure campaign is. We have thousands of folks who were born here, and or, graduated from here, who have lived here their entire lives or left and came back. Whose identity is that of being a Red Raider — their golden memories of their childhood and youth, their glory in competition athletically, in the arts. The things they talk about every year at reunions.

For so many, the core of who they are as people are Red Raiders. Loyalty, service to something other than who they are. Family, community, togetherness. The good stuff.

Broader societal perceptions may change with time. But, to most of those who went to the school and live here. It did not overnight become something it never has been. It was never intentioned, viewed or treated as some want to read into it — as a derogatory reference.

It gets dismissed out of hand, but it has, in fact, since its inception and during each evolution, always been treated with great reverence and dignity toward the indigenous people who came before us.

There certainly are those who come at this from a good place, who mean well and have good intentions. Some of whom have communicated about this respectfully and thoughtfully. But this myopic rush to push through a mostly symbolic gesture completely disregards how doing so would impact so many in a deeply personal way, as well as how they are being portrayed to make it happen.

As a resident of this community for over a quarter century, how this has been framed runs completely counter to what I know about Bellefonte. This is the home I never had. My wife and I chose to raise our family in Bellefonte because we knew the balance that it provides: A good education, a safe and unassuming community. I reject how our home is being framed. And, I reject the framing that not delving into this now is “sweeping it under the rug.” This discussion can be had. Organically. Not because outside events or people dictate. And, we need to have faith in the decency of our families, neighbors and friends to sort this out like they always have when the time is right.

If people feel strongly about it, campaign on it, say one of your personal agenda items if elected is to do something with the moniker-logo. If you win you will have the mandate to do so.

Another thing that jumps out with this blind rush to change, there is no viable alternative being proposed. Just blow it up and figure it out. Again, a pressure sell for the sake of having the Board of Education abdicate a stance of good educational leadership and trample over its community.

Who cares what the district is called. Just change it?

No one asked me, but if they did I would have told them that to do this right would take a lot of time and energy. If this was being done in a proper way it would be something other than dropping a change.org petition out of the blue, and using that, outside interest groups and a lot of inflammatory language to intimidate the board of education.

People should have gone to the administration to talk about what the district is doing with inclusion and diversity — no one has thought, asked nor relayed any real knowledge about this over the last month.

It would involve outreach to the board to see what its working agenda was, if this fit into it, and if not when it might be able to consider it. Not demanding immediate change.

It would involve finding a way to actually engage the community in discussion. Taking the time to craft the language and framing that would give it a chance. It would involve collaboratively working with stakeholders in a discussion of what moniker/logo might better represent the district in this day and age.

Then come to the BOE with something that has some actual level of community support. If this is truly that important, then do it right.

But, this effort has been profoundly lazy and sloppy. At best. I will not be a party to letting them bully and intimidate us. And one final time, I call on my fellow board members to join with those of us who:

r Refuse to let us be pressured into this.

r Are trying to reassure the public that we are properly focused on the extraordinary moment that we are living in.

r Refuse to have our agenda hijacked.

r Want to get us and this distraction out of the way so the district can do the tangible things it is working on so that we can be better with inclusion and diversity.

r Are fighting for our community.

r Have faith in our community.

Vote no to this motion and definitively state that this is not an item that Bellefonte Area School District Board of Education will be taking up at this time.

Bellefonte Deserves a Better Mascot Facebook page – under 300 members.

Bellefonte Deserves a Better Mascot Group Facebook page – 101 members.

Keep the Bellefonte Logo Facebook page – 3000+ members.

Tor Michael’s informal poll – 7 to change 210 to keep.

Jeff Steiner of Pleasant Gap is vice president of the Bellefonte Area School Board.

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