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Pro-mascot candidates win seats in Lancaster

Lancaster School District voters, angry about the abrupt retiring of their mascot, tossed out two incumbents who voted to do away with the mascot that was beloved by many and deemed racist by others.

However, as nasty as the Redskins debate has raged in the community for months, voters overwhelmingly backed the new budget, a bus proposition and a $57.3 million capital project, which some had feared could have been in jeopardy because of the mascot controversy.

As soon as the unofficial vote results were posted in the high school gymnasium, a group of Redskins supporters surrounding Brenda Christopher and Kelly Depczynski erupted in shouts of victory, clapping and hugging the two women who unseated incumbents Wendy Buchert and Kimberly Nowak, who had voted with the board to retire the mascot in March. Newcomer Wendy DellaNeve lost her bid for election.

One man shouted to the administration and School Board members: “Time for a change!”

The election of the two pro-Redskins candidates, however, does not mean the mascot will be returned. The seven-member board voted unanimously to retire that mascot, and students are in the process of selecting a new mascot.

About 75 residents, faculty and onlookers had gathered to hear the results, which were announced shortly after 9:30 p.m. All three propositions for the district budget, an ambitious capital project and transportation proposition to buy new buses passed overwhelmingly. The voter turnout was especially high at 5,309 but did not break a record of about 6,000 during a vote in the 1980s. “The people have spoken. We have finally been heard,” said Christopher, dressed in a two-piece red suit. She will return to the board she served on until 2013.

Standing behind her, Christopher’s husband, John, said: “Let’s party, baby,” and they left the gym.

Depczynski, who will hold public office for the first time, had tears in her eyes. “I’m overwhelmed,” she said. “I’m proud of my community. Now, I’m just going to celebrate this victory and simmer on this until I take my seat.”

The board, without discussion, formally certified the vote results. Board President Kenneth Graber said to the new board electees and their supporters: “While you might think it’s not been transparent, I think it has been transparent,” he said.

The lingering anger over the Redskins mascot controversy undoubtedly played a heavy hand in how people voted – though the administration was grateful for the overwhelming approval of the budget, capital project and transportation proposition.

“Honestly, I think it’s just a sad day for Lancaster,” Nowak said afterward. “They had a chance for integrity and they chose drama, instead.”

Buchert, in tears and visibly upset, declined to comment other than to say, “It is what it is.”

Superintendent Michael J. Vallely was pleased that the budget propositions gained voter approval.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that we passed a budget by over 2,000 votes, the largest in Lancaster history,” Vallely said. “We also passed the largest capital project in district history that will really do great things for the children and this community.”

Vallely said he felt fairly confident that the community would back the budget and the capital project. “Because I believe this community realized we needed these improvements to our buildings,” he said.

Graber individually congratulated the incoming board members. “We’re very happy the propositions passed. I think it shows confidence in the board and the superintendent,” he said. “As for the board results, the people have spoken and we’ll work with whomever is elected.”

Graber and longtime board veteran Marie MacKay defended the board’s decision to retire the mascot immediately in March – citing concern over racism and the fear that boycotted lacrosse games that Lancaster had with neighboring districts could have led to increasing tensions against students if the mascot was not addressed promptly.

Moreover, Graber said the pro-Redskins contingent pushed the board last fall to make a decision when it asked for that publicly at meetings. “We had no intention of doing anything until they pushed us last fall. But we’ll work with them,” Graber said.

MacKay was disappointed with the board election. “I feel Wendy Buchert and Kim Nowak stood up for what was right for all students,” she said. “It’s unfortunate the adults can’t move on.”

The board’s decision on the mascot triggered strong backlash with student marches, protests including some alumni, and even had pro-Redskins residents hounding the superintendent as he made his way to his car after a board budget meeting.

Although the mascot was “retired,” the mascot issue never went away. A large Native American motif with the “Lancaster Redskins” name in large lettering overlooked voters from the wall of the gym as they cast their votes on eight machines. It was painted on the wooden floor they walked across to reach the machines.

A steady stream of residents wore a mix of shirts to vote, from “One Lancaster” to “Change It Back!” to “Lancaster Redskins Strong” shirts. Tuesday was “One Lancaster Day” districtwide, and many high school students wore “One Lancaster” shirts as they got off the school buses this morning.