Pascack mayors call for investigation of BOE mascot decisions

Board President Tammy Molinelli said the Board would respond when it “has had the opportunity to thoroughly review the [mayors’] letter.”

Woodcliff+Lake+Mayor+Carlos+Rendo+and+Montvale+Mayor+Mike+Ghassali.

Woodcliff Lake and Montvale websites

Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo and Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali.

By Jared Mitovich, Pascack Hills High School

In a joint letter, four Pascack mayors are calling for an investigation into the mascot removal and what they describe as “highly irregular” conduct by the Pascack Valley Regional Board of Education and Superintendent Erik Gundersen.

The letter was sent to the Board of Education and published on Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo’s Facebook page Wednesday. It was signed by Rendo and Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali, whose towns send their students to Pascack Hills; as well as Hillsdale Mayor John Ruocco and River Vale Mayor Glen Jasniowski, whose towns send their students to Pascack Valley.

Rendo argued that “our issue has always been about the process and the lack of transparency.” Last June, when the Board voted to remove the Cowboys and Indians mascots at Hills and Valley, the four Republican mayors called the Board’s vote “a symptom of the 24-hour news cycle.”

The most recent letter focuses on the Board’s actions in removing the mascots eight months ago and why the mayors believe their and Gundersen’s actions were “ill-advised.” The mayors do not mention whether they are in favor of the new mascots that the Board approved on Monday. Each new mascot, Broncos at Hills and Panthers at Valley, received a commanding majority of their respective school-wide vote among students and staff in late February.

Roughly 75% of eligible students and staff at each school voted.

In the letter, the four mayors cite two emails obtained under the Open Public Records Act that were sent before the mascots were removed last June. The mayors argue that the two emails’ contents show that Gundersen had a bias in favor of those who advocated for the removal of the Cowboys and Indians mascots.

The first email, sent by Gundersen to Valley teacher Leah Jerome last May, sought to schedule a meeting among four Board members and Valley’s One Spirit Club to “learn more about the perspective of the students as it pertains to [Valley’s] mascot and engage in some dialogue about the differing perspectives that people have regarding the mascot.”

Any group of people can deliver informational presentations on any topic to the Board in private, as long as four or fewer Board members attend. Otherwise, the meeting has to be open to the public. This policy is called the Board meeting quorum and is used commonly by school boards (BoardSource).

The One Spirit Club advocated for removing the Indians mascot at Valley, and its members have traveled to the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, where they were able to hear Native Americans’ perspectives on having Indians as a mascot.

One of the emails mentioned by the mayors in their letter, dated May 20, 2020.

The second email referenced was sent by Gundersen to Jerome and another Valley teacher, Marisa Mathias, who also advises the One Spirit Club. It was sent hours before the Board’s June 22 meeting, when the Cowboys and Indians mascots were ultimately removed. He asked the two teachers to let him know if the club was organizing a speaker to comment at the meeting so that they could be the first to do so during the allotted public comments time.

The other email referenced by the mayors in their letter, dated June 22, 2020.

The mayors’ letter ultimately calls for these two emails and “the entire process as well as the decision-makers’ participation in the process” to be fully investigated “by an independent board created by the current BOE.”

The mayors say the independent investigative board should include community members, though they do not say how those members would be selected if the investigation were to occur. “The Superintendent, the BOE President and any other BOE members found to have been complicit in this highly irregular conduct must recuse themselves” from the investigation, the letter continues.

When asked for comment, Gundersen referred the Trailblazer to Board President Tammy Molinelli’s response to the mayor’s letter. Molinelli told the mayors that the Board would respond in more detail when it “has had the opportunity to thoroughly review the letter.”

The letter can be read in full here. The mayors state that their concerns, including that the mascot removal showed “poor prioritizing” by the Board during a pandemic, reflect those of “a large population in the Pascack Valley community.”

The mayors also said students “desperately need” a sense of community and unity. They did not state how that would be achieved by investigating the Board for misconduct. In addition, while the mayors said the new mascots should be revisited at a later date, the Board rejected a motion to do so as recently as Monday, showing a lack of appetite for prolonging the mascot issue.

According to Board member Gini Varghese, students and parents in the community have expressed a sense of “mascot fatigue.”

The letter represents another turn in the saga of Hills and Valley’s mascots. While new mascots have been approved, and the mascot search committees at both schools are meeting soon to discuss the rebranding, debate over the old mascots continues.

This story was originally published on The Trailblazer on March 10, 2021.