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A year later, Lancaster school board race is still about Redskins

More than a year has passed since the Lancaster School District stopped being the Redskins.

The schools’ sports teams and mascot are now the Legends.

A class of seniors graduated last June as the Legends, and a batch of kindergartners started school in the fall having never been the Redskins.

But the hostile divide over the mascot change has never been bridged.

A year later, the lingering bitterness has evolved into a toxic climate on the fragmented 5-2 pro-administration School Board. Two warring factions – pro-Redskins supporters and those who back the administration – remain deadlocked in turmoil that some liken to “Trump-esque” behavior.

Next week’s contentious School Board race with five candidates vying for two seats is a testament to the far-reaching fallout.

At stake in Tuesday’s vote is majority control of the board, which some believe is vulnerable for the second shakeup in a year. If the two candidates backed by the pro-Redskins faction are elected, that side would have a 4-3 edge. Already, there is public speculation that Superintendent Michael J. Vallely could be ousted.

And some Redskins hard-liners are pushing for the return of their mascot.

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Campaigning has been fierce in Lancaster. A Facebook group shows a head shot of Vallely with a red line slashed across his face to X him out.

Postcard mailers are being sent to voters and a phone bank is ramping up for pro-administration candidates.

Turnout, like last year, is expected to be high.

“It will be a pivotal election,” Board President Patrick Uhteg said. “The outcome of this election will set a course for the culture of the Lancaster School District.”

The five candidates

Two seats are up for grabs on the seven-member board. One is Bill Gallagher’s, who is seeking a second term. The other seat is held by 12-year board veteran Kenneth Graber, who faced harsh public criticism as board president when the board retired the Redskins mascot. He is not running for re-election.

Here is how the race shapes up:

The two pro-Redskins candidates are political newcomers Brian C. Osika and MaryJo E. DiGiulio-Schaefer.

Osika: 41, an education-based independent contractor. Pushing for more open communication for the community, foster cooperation, be fiscally responsible, critical of the district’s attorney fees, opposed to excessive testing for students.

DiGiulio-Schaefer: 44, an Alden High School English teacher. Wants reforms to Common Core assessments, restore trust and respect between district and public, would eliminate call-ahead policy for public to speak at board meetings, offer separate bathrooms for transgender students.

The two pro-administration candidates are Gallagher and Sue Metz.

Gallagher: 39, current board vice president who is a math teacher at Frontier School District. Says he is open-minded, wants students to feel supported and safe, sees need for greater respect between public and the board, said the board’s decision on the mascot was not made haphazardly and was difficult. Doesn’t believe a public referendum on the Redskins is the right answer and feels transgender policy might need rewriting but cautioned against making a hasty decision on the issue.

• Metz: Heavily active in the parent teacher organizations. Her 14-year-old son James died in 2014 when two small planes collided in Lancaster. Supports the decision to retire the Redskins mascot and says it’s time to move forward. Describes herself as approachable and thoughtful, wants to see the board be civil and not negative and argumentative. Says changes needed with Common Core, but not against testing. Says she would promote civility, and stay true to her beliefs and do what is best for the children. “I’ve been dealt some serious blows in my life that have taught me to keep things in perspective,” she said.

The self-described independent is Kristi M. Perillo-Okeke.

Perillo-Okeke: 35, a chiropractor and instructor at Bryant & Stratton College who also teaches online courses. Calls herself a “visionary education reformer.” Says she is an independent collaborator and is willing to work with anyone, foster accountability, honesty and transparency on the board and reduce standardized testing. Says she would not vote to change back to Redskins name.

An ugly race

This year’s school board race in Lancaster is even uglier than last year’s, said Uhteg, a board member who is not up for re-election this year.

Last May, incumbents Kim Nowak and Wendy Buchert, who were part of the unanimous vote to “retire” the Redskins at Lancaster schools, were unseated by Redskins supporters Brenda Christopher and Kelly H. Depczynski.

Since taking office in the summer, Christopher and Depczynski have been a vocal minority on the board, pushing for new initiatives that often get tabled or shot down by the board majority. That typically triggers criticism at meetings from Redskins backers.

Yelling, raised voices by both sides, and police presence now are commonplace at board meetings. Rarely is education talked about. Some residents tape the meetings on their cellphones. Uhteg said he has been spit at, had his car keyed and had a Redskins supporter follow him home from a meeting and park in front of his home.

A Friends of Lancaster Redskins Facebook group has posted a YouTube compilation of argumentative board meetings showing infighting and challenges from Christopher and Depczynski to the board majority and subsequent reactions from other board colleagues.

“Is this the civility you want to restore in Lancaster?” the Facebook page asks.

The Redskins movement has since enfolded parent critics of other hot-button issues: state testing, the board’s delayed action on district policy for bathroom use by transgender students and complaints about tightened public speaking rules at board meetings. Christopher had pushed a proposal to put veterans parking spots at school buildings and resistance by the majority on the board led to accusations that those against the idea or who haven’t decided are “anti-veteran.”

The pro-Redskins side argues that the current administration is dismissive of its opinions and tries to silence their opposition, while the current majority says the pro-Redskins crowd is purposely trying to create hostility and turmoil, putting the administration on the defensive. Many principals at this week’s board meeting publicly lauded the district for its academic accomplishments and praised Vallely’s leadership.

Like others, Uhteg said Lancaster’s board – with all its conflict, manipulation and misinformation – mirrors the behavior of Hamburg’s former School Board. “We are Hamburg,” he said, referring to the Southtowns district that was roiled in chaos a few years ago. “All this is fueled by this anger over a high school mascot. I’m hoping the community has witnessed a year of this stuff, and says, ‘Enough is Enough.’”

Voters to decide

Lancaster alumnus Carl Monti, a 1965 graduate, is in favor of the focus on the Redskins.

A week ago, Monti came to a candidates roundtable forum wearing his red “Once a Redskin, Always a Redskin” T-shirt. “The board should have given the community a voice, and not just slammed it down their throats,” an agitated Monti told the candidates. In a later interview, he predicted the board power will shift. “I think you’ll see a changing of the guard and I think the Redskins will pick up both seats,” he said.

Parent Season Cognion says she backs the administration. “The other two candidates supporting the Redskin movement say they’re looking out for the children and Common Core, but the hatred they have toward the administration just doesn’t go away. I feel that their main goal is to get on there, and get rid of Mr. Vallely, despite what they say,” said Cognion, who is active in the Middle School PTO. “I think the lack of respect at board meetings toward Mr. Uhteg and board members has been ridiculous.”

Teachers’ union President Eric Przykuta said the union only endorsed candidate Perillo-Okeke, an independent, whom he said is “here for the right reasons.”

“She knows how to play nice in the sandbox and brings the right tools to help this Board of Education,” Przykuta said. “I call this current board of education ‘dysfunctional’ as it currently stands, which at the end of the day, is hurting the children. We want the best for the kids. We don’t want Lancaster to be a Hamburg.” He also insisted the union supports Vallely continuing as superintendent.

Much like last year’s election, high voter turnout again is expected Tuesday when polls open at 7 a.m. at the high school on Forton Drive. Last year’s election drew 5,309 voters, but did not break a record of 6,000 for a budget vote in the 1980s.

email: krobinson@buffnews.com