By Emma Cotton/VTDigger RUTLAND — An attorney’s review, requested by the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners, says the board’s vote to change the Rutland High School mascot to the “Ravens” should stand.
The board voted to retire the previous mascot, the “Raider,” in October after a group of students, staff and alumni expressed concerns about racism in the mascot’s origins. In February, the board voted to adopt a new mascot, the “Ravens,” which was chosen by Rutland students.
Since then, the issue has become contentious in the city.
In March, residents elected several new school board members who campaigned on reinstating the previous name and logo.
In May, board Chair Hurley Cavacas established an ad-hoc committee to analyze the actions of the previous board members and determine whether they followed correct procedure when they voted to change the mascot.
To that end, the ad-hoc committee asked attorneys with the Burlington-based firm McNeil Leddy & Sheahan to review the board’s actions from October through February. The firm released its recommendation to the board Aug. 2.
The board asked for legal guidance to help determine whether the process was “‘performed correctly’ and if it was not, to advise the ad-hoc committee whether ‘any correction can or should be made’,” the letter said.
Christopher Leopold, who wrote the review, said that although the firm “cannot predict how Vermont courts will rule on any legal challenge with certainty,” based on the review, “it is our legal opinion that the board action to adopt a new mascot — the ‘Ravens’ — is a binding action of the board.”
The review focuses on Robert’s Rules of Order, which establishes guidelines for conducting public meetings. Leopold found that Alison Notte, who chaired the board when it voted to change the mascot, did not perfectly follow Robert’s Rules of Order, but her errors “are neither sufficiently fatal to the board actions to adopt a new mascot nor were individual school commissioners disadvantaged by the process.”
For example, when a board member introduced the motion that called for Rutland schools to retire the mascot, school board member Erin Shimp asked to amend the motion. Notte gave Shimp incorrect guidance about how to do it, and as a result, her amendment was not correctly considered.
The letter notes that, while the chair of the board is primarily responsible for ensuring that the board adheres to Robert’s Rules of Order, other board members can assist with that process.
“No commissioner expressed any concerns, raised any point of order, objected to the ‘friendly amendment,’ or otherwise questioned the process prior to the final vote,” the letter said.
In another instance, at a Nov. 10 meeting, Shimp made a motion to rescind the October motion. Notte rejected it, saying that only board members who voted in the affirmative on the original motion could make a motion to rescind and that it must be a warned agenda item.
Her guidance was not quite in line with Robert’s Rules, the letter said. Anyone can make a motion to rescind — only a “motion to reconsider” must be raised by a board member who originally voted for the motion.
However, without prior notice, a motion to rescind requires a two-thirds vote to pass, and it’s generally reserved for matters “requiring emergency action.”
“We conclude that despite President Notte’s confusion and the flaws in her specific points regarding the motion to rescind, her ruling that the motion was not properly before the board was reasonable,” Leopold wrote.
The letter notes that while Shimp and other commissioners were invited to bring the motion back when it could be properly warned, no one did.
The full board was present when it voted to adopt the “Ravens” mascot in February.
“It is our opinion that the board’s formal adoption of the ‘Ravens’ as the school mascot effectively negated any defects that may have existed in either the Oct. 20 or Nov. 10 meeting,” the letter stated. The action was properly warned.
On Friday, Aug. 6, Notte, the former board chair, shared the letter from Leopold, which contained the results of his review, with the press including VTDigger. The ad-hoc committee is scheduled to discuss the letter Sept. 2.
“All [meetings] this summer have been canceled by the board chair, and the board has not had any interactions since the mascot forum in June,” Notte wrote. “This makes board work and discussion on this and other matters impossible.”
Hurley Cavacas, the board’s current chair, has questioned Notte’s process. Reached by phone Friday, he declined to say whether the board will take any specific action based on the attorney’s review but said he’ll look for a recommendation from the ad-hoc committee after it meets in September.
“I’m not going to make any comments except that I am perturbed that a school board member cannot follow a requested procedure,” he said, referring to Notte’s errors as outlined by the attorney’s letter.
The letter recommends that the board adopt a subset of Robert’s Rules of Order designed for small boards, which would “eliminate a very small but unnecessary portion of the formality and rigidity” of the rules. It also recommends a training session on Robert’s Rules, and another session from the Vermont School Boards Association on the “proper application of procedural rules” as they relate to school boards.
“As we have concluded that the mascot change was valid, we do not include any additional recommended action steps for the board to take at this time,” the letter said.