District faces backlash, support regarding mascot removal

Decision will not be overturned, per Superintendent

During+its+virtual+meeting+held+on+Zoom+this+morning%2C+the+Board+of+Education+faced+many+comments+and+questions+from+community+members+regarding+its+decision+to+remove+the+mascots.+District+Superintendent+Erik+Gundersen+said+that+the+decision+to+remove+the+mascots+will+not+be+changed.++

Ellie Kim

During its virtual meeting held on Zoom this morning, the Board of Education faced many comments and questions from community members regarding its decision to remove the mascots. District Superintendent Erik Gundersen said that the decision to remove the mascots will not be changed.

Ellie Kim and Spencer Goldstein

(Editor’s note: This article will be updated at a later date as the situation continues to develop. The Smoke Signal will continue to follow new developments and provide updates once more information is made available.)

Updated at 1:16 p.m. to include the number of speakers in favor of and against the decision.

Board of Education member Joseph Blundo said his decision to vote to remove the mascots of Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills Monday night is the one he is most “disappointed” in making in all of his 24 years in public office during the Board of Education meeting this morning held on Zoom. His vote contributed to the Board’s decision to vacate the mascots of PV and PH, who were previously the Indians and Cowboys, respectively.

“In my heart, I never wanted to see the mascot removed. I told them I would never change the mascot logo and I went back on my word,” Blundo said. “I am not afraid to vote ‘no,’ but the opinions [of others] moved my opinions. But deep down I was not true to myself – I voted with the fellow Board members.”

The meeting was attended by 500 community members —the maximum number of participants allowed by Zoom— and 36 people debated for or against the removal of the mascots during the second session of comments from the public. It lasted for over three hours and included a brief intermission. District Superintendent Erik Gundersen clarified that the meeting was originally meant to be Board retreat, rather than a regular meeting, and that the decision to remove the mascot was “not a political” one. 

“There is no reconsideration,” Gundersen said. “This is not an argument for an upcoming vote that is planned.”

Several Board members defended the decisions and positions they took during the prior meeting. Board member Michael Fronte said the Board was there to “serve” the community and open to listening to community members’ opinions. 

“I think we have a great board that cares very much for the school and taxpayers,” Board member Michael Fronte said. “We were elected to protect our students’ interests. [The] decision [to remove the mascot] was not taken lightly.”

Board members Kenneth Ralph and Arnold Scher defended their decision to remove the mascot. Ralph said that even if it “cost money to do the right thing, we should [still] do” it. 

“Going into this, I didn’t take it lightly – I took my time listening to everybody,” Board member James Stankus said. “I read all the emails I could leading up to the meeting. Making students feel included is important. I see this as an opportunity to move forward.”

The Board faced criticism and support from community members during comments from the public. Delia Collis, PV rising senior and Executive Class Council President for the upcoming school year, commented on the many social media posts regarding the school spirit connected with the mascot. 

“As a fellow athlete, I have never looked at the name ‘Indian’ on my jersey and gotten a rush for the sole reason that my mascot’s name is the Indian,” Collis said. “We need to start somewhere, this is a high school where we look to develop our core value, not a place to promote racism.”

Class of 2020 graduate Beck Kerdman said the Cowboys and Indians team names are in “stark contrast to the message of unity” he grew up with. 

“We do not honor Native Americans when we commodify their image and we reduce them to a misunderstood identity, we do not honor our country and we do not honor our area’s history and we are not memorializing them correctly,” Kerdman said. “Cowboys are a symbol of the colonization of native lands and the murder and destruction of native people and culture.”

Class of 2002 graduate Kelly O’Hara commended the Board for their “real leadership” in having the courage to move with the time and not be stuck with the past.”

“The history of the schools of the towns will always exist,” O’Hara said. “Removal of the symbols means that our understanding of the symbols have changed and we are willing to move forward.” 

Five community members spoke in opposition to the decision, while 29 spoke in support of the decision. Two speakers were undecided. Community member Bill Mulholland spoke in opposition to the decision and said it was “underhanded” for the Board to not publicize that a decision would be made prior to the meeting Monday night. 

“I really think that living in a democracy, we really need to take into account that we have not seen a really good reason to remove the [mascots],” Mulholland said. “Mentally, what are we doing to our children right now? This is not the time [to make a decision] with all the uncertainty. The subconscious issues that COVID has put into our kids’ heads and then ripping the [school] pride, heart, and soul. There are kids and parents on both sides of this.”

Many parents further commented on the lack of discussion regarding the PH mascot during the prior meeting before the decision to remove it was made. 

“I don’t really care personally about either of the mascots. To me, I got no internal remembrance as a child of it,” Montvale resident Yale Glazer said. “The entire meeting [Monday] seemed to focus on the Indians and then at the end they said this includes [the] Cowboys too. I do agree that the Indians should go, but the same level of debate was not held for the cowboys.”

Gundersen addressed financial rebranding concerns also brought up by Glazer and said that the decision made by the Board “came somewhat recently and it is the administration’s job to determine” the details of funding. 

Hillsdale resident Gina Hutchinson said the Board is “one sided” and only listens “to the side that [they] agree with.”

“When the students do not agree there are punishments and threats. How are you going to handle those students when they come back and they wear their spirit wear?” Hutchinson said. “I believe many of the teachers push their beliefs on the students and that is not the job of an educator. The job of an educator is to educate the student for both sides, not to push your beliefs on the students.”

Gundersen responded to Hutchinson, saying he took “offense’ to her “personal attack.” 

“I’ve been in this district for 26 years and I have a great deal of pride in Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills,” Gundersen said. “I know very well the arguments on both sides.”

On top of all of the mascot-related discussion, the Board voted on and approved summer athletic in-person training beginning July 13 through Sept. 1, as well as in-person outdoor graduation ceremonies for PV and PH for July 8 with a rain date of July 9. The decision to open the tennis courts behind PV, which can be accessed through Sapienza Gardens, was also approved, due to them being on Bergen County land, according Gundersen. 

The Board received several questions from community members during the first session of comments from the public regarding its transparency and availability on meeting minutes – the specific topics discussed by the Board during each meeting – and agenda items. Montvale resident Maria Geanopulos commented about the lack of detail provided about the mascot discussion prior to the meeting Monday, June 22. 

“There has to be a general meeting [for meeting minutes] and for everyone to be able to be a part of that to make that decision for our communities,” Geanopulos said. “I hope that you continue to make sure that everybody’s voices are heard, especially the alumni and students of the schools, and the parents who are taxpayers.” 

Hillsdale resident Alexis Parsells additionally asked for clarification regarding the election of Board members and its purpose. 

“By definition, a council is people that are voted in to make decisions as you do, so maybe that needs to be gone over,” Parsells said. 

The district also answered questions brought up by community members about the in-person graduation ceremonies. Gundersen said the principals of both schools will be releasing more information to the Class of 2020 later this week.