GM board votes to keep Chieftain; Fierman, 3 members resign Board member cites confusing motion, spotty internet in vote that upheld name

By Shawn Cunningham and
Cynthia Prairie
2023 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The divisive issue of using the Chieftain name by Green Mountain High School came to a head at last night’s school district board meeting and, by the time it was over, the board in effect voted to keep the “Chieftains” name and three of its members and Superintendent Lauren Fierman had resigned.

The misunderstanding of a complex vote on Zoom left the outcome tainted. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

But the irony is that the outcome of the vote and the resulting resignations came about when one board member, attending on Zoom, misheard or misunderstood the wording of the motion, which required members to vote “yes” to mean no and “no” to mean yes, and voted that the Chieftains name did not violate the policy against discriminatory labeling that the board had approved earlier this year.

But after the vote and two resignations, and as the board got ready to adjourn, that board member — Katie Murphy of Chester — realized her misunderstanding and attempted to clarify her stand, which would have been that the name did indeed violate the board’ policy. By then, Cavendish members Dennis Reilly and Kate Lamphere had announced their resignations and left, and a re-vote on the issue would have made no difference. After the meeting, Murphy also resigned in an email to board chair Deb Brown, but has since reconsidered and asked to rescind her resignation.

Thursday night’s vote was required as a result of complaints about the mascot name lodged with the school district by several groups and individuals who claimed that the use of the name violated a policy that the board approved in January.  The E5 policy, which is required by the state of Vermont through Act 152, prohibits “school branding that directly or indirectly references or stereotypes the likeness, features, symbols, traditions, or other characteristics that are specific to either: (A) the race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity of any person or group of persons” or those associated with “the repression of others.”

While the district had dropped the use of the logo depicting a Native American wearing a Plains Indian headdress in silhouette, the question of whether the name “indirectly” referred to the logo became a point of contention. While some felt that the word “chieftain” could be rebranded as a leader, others asserted that 50 years of being linked to the Indian head logo made the name irreversibly tainted.

People on both sides of the question have laid out their positions at multiple board meetings, but the hearing on the policy violation came with a 45-day deadline for a decision and the time was ticking down.

A double negative causes the confusion

Last night,  as the board neared the end of the agenda, board chair Deb Brown reminded the members that they had decided to vote on whether the name the “Chieftains” violated the state’s and the school’s Non-Discriminatory Mascot and School Branding Policy, then asked for a motion on the question.

Board member Jeff Hance made the motion that the Chieftain name did not violate the board’s policy. Telegraph file photo

Jeff Hance of Chester moved that the use of the Chieftain name did not violate the policy, but questions arose about what that vote would look like. If a member believed the name did not violate the policy then he or she should vote yes. But whoever thought the name did violate the policy should vote no.

Hance suggested that the vote be taken by paper ballot because members might be “afraid to speak,” but others felt they could go ahead with the vote. The roll call vote ended in a 5-5 tie and chair Brown read a statement about the issue before breaking the tie by voting that the name does not violate the policy.

Brown said she saw “some merit in both arguments” and that she “sincerely wants to do what is best for our school and town.” She said that the world that has lost its ability to compromise and hoped to move past the issue and “put all of our energy into educating our students.”

Brown also said that since the board dropped the Native American logo, the name is “no longer a mascot but an identity – an identity that represents leaders.”

Kate Lamphere said she could not be a part of a board that made this decision. Telegraph file photo

The breakdown of the vote was that Josh Schroeder, Dennis Reilly, Kate Lamphere, Steve Perani and Lois Perlah said the name violated the policy while Rick Alexander, Adrienne Williams, Jeff Hance, Scott Kendall and Katie Murphy voted to say it did not.  At that point, Reilly and Lamphere resigned, citing their positions. Reilly said that as a professor at a state university he could not countenance a decision that breaks state law and Lamphere said that as a licensed social worker  she has dedicated here entire career to the “mental well being of Vermonters” and could not continue on a board that made this decision.

But after the results were announced and members of the public on both sides had commented, Murphy spoke up. She said that her internet had been spotty all night and that she had meant her vote to say that people should not be mascots and the policy was indeed violated. By that time however, Brown said the vote had been recorded but there could be a re-vote. However, since Reilly and Lamphere had left the meeting by then,  her vote change would be moot.

Fierman, Reilly, Murphy address their resignations

Superintendent Lauren Fierman. Telegraph file photo

Contacted Thursday night at a superintendents’ conference in Burlington, Fierman said, “In order for me to represent the two school districts (Green Mountain Unified and Ludlow-Mount Holly), I have to be able to support their (the boards’) decisions. I haven’t always agreed with them, but I have been always able to support all of (those decisions). However … this is not only a decision I do not agree with, it is one I cannot support.”

She called the situation “unfortunate.” But added, “I have informed the board chair (Deb Brown) that I will be tendering my resignation to the (Two Rivers Supervisory Union). And I will stay on until they find a replacement, if the TRSU board would like me to. I am willing  to stay, but that is up to them.   I don’t want to leave anybody in the lurch. It is a little late to find a new superintendent.” Fierman has been superintendent for three years, and was principal of Green Mountain Union High for two years prior to that.

Attempts to reach TRSU board chair Paul Orzechowski of Ludlow Thursday night and Friday morning were unsuccessful.

Board member Katie Murphy at first resigned but has reconsidered, saying the only way she can make it better is to stay on the board. Telegraph file photo

Speaking about her vote last night, Murphy told The Telegraph this morning that she had been attending her daughter’s softball game while Zooming in on the board meeting. “I needed to be there for her,” she said of her daughter. “If I had been there (at the board meeting) in person, I might have made better sense of things.” But, she also said, “The wording of the motion did not help me ….  …  The name is in clear violation of the school policy.”

Following the vote, and discovering her error, she said she was “disappointed in myself” and emailed Brown at 7:48 p.m. announcing she would resign. That, she said, “was a heat-of-the moment decision …  as soon as I sent it, I realized I needed to retract it. The only way I can make it better is to stay on the board.”

Murphy added, “I cannot just walk away from that responsibility.  I need to fight for our children and our community members. I cannot in good conscience just walk away.”

Dennis Reilly told the board he was resigning because it was breaking the law. Telegraph file photo

Dennis Reilly, who resigned with fellow Cavendish board member Kate Lamphere, said that when the board went into executive session early on in the meeting, its lawyer “spelled out the options and the law and said it was up to the school board. To me it is clear cut. It’s not an issue if I am for the Chieftain or not. It’s whether it violates state law. And as far as I am concerned, it does. ”

He added that through this controversy he did not receive any “message, call or anything” from those who were pro-Chieftains. “But I did receive a lot” from those who believed differently.

He conceded, “I think she (Lauren Fierman) is in a tough spot. She has to do what she believes is right by the state of Vermont.”

As for his future, Reilly said, “I will continue to be an advocate for our community in some shape or form. They are restructuring so I will be involved in that as a citizen. In my heart … I came on the school board to improve the schools to the best of my ability, and I feel I failed.  I’m disappointed and sad and I just don’t know how to fix it.”

“We’re in turmoil right now, and the people deserve better.”

Carrie Roy King said she was ‘ashamed and disappointed.’ Telegraph file photo

Following the vote, advocates for keeping the Chieftain name, including Otis Nelson, Conner Miles and Randy Miles, thanked the board for its decision, while those who had pushed for the change – including Deb Velto, Emily Burkland and Carrie  King – expressed their disappointment.

“I am beyond ashamed,” said GMUHS teacher Sharon Jonynas, “I had a child in seventh grade say to me that if the vote came out that we are keeping the mascot she was going to go to a different school. I’m ashamed, I really am.”

King, a Chester resident who filed a complaint about the name, said in an interview last night, “The last thing we needed was for any board members to resign.  I’m heartbroken for the future. When the adults at the school maintain this racial and sexist divisiveness, what happens when diverse students walk into the school? … ..  The board doesn’t listen to diverse voices and then acts surprised when racist incidents happen.”

She added that the board “made a very confusing motion when it was presented. The board could have done a better job making it clear.”

‘Chieftain’ in the hands of the state

Otis Nelson thanks the board for its decision. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

Now, the complainants have 30 days to appeal the decision to the Agency of Education. At the meeting, one complainant — Matthew Gorsky — said his complaint would be “going to the state.” Act 152 gives the Secretary of Education the appellate authority.

“We haven’t received any of these yet so it’s uncharted territory,” said Ted Fisher, AOE spokesman and legislative liaison, told The Telegraph in early April. He went on to say that “the secretary (of Education) will address complaints consistent with the Administrative Procedures Act (3 V.S.A. §§ 809-816). If the secretary finds that the district branding violates the law, the district will be required to change the branding.”

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  1. Randy Miles says:

    I feel the school board got this right. If they voted to find the word chieftain violated act 152 then the word chieftain would be a racist word and meaning. The line would have to go further back to Green Mountain and the school building itself. What would the students of 1971 and after be? Racist? No that was not the intent and it is not the meaning of Chieftain. The line was drawn where it needed to be. The board did its job according information gathered and policy written.Chieftain is not a mascot but a meaningful and powerful word.sorry to see some board members act foolish? Now maybe bigger problems can be addressed by new members and facility. Last note, Chieftain sounds like a native American word? Look it up and see for yourself.

  2. Victoria Gardner says:

    “activists & academics” are dog whistles. What does it say that someone wants to make this a false dichotomy between people who have been educated and people who, in this age of access to information, choose ignorance. Since links are allowed now, per the NCAI ; “NCAI is the oldest, largest, and most representative national organization that shares the unified voice of hundreds of Tribal Nations representing millions of Native people, and that voice has been consistent and clear for decades: sports mascots are symbols of disrespect that degrade, mock, and harm Native people, particularly Native youth.”

    This website also hosts a paper titled “ENDING THE LEGACY OF RACISM IN SPORTS & THE ERA OF HARMFUL “INDIAN” SPORTS MASCOTS” and it ought to be reported on because we can’t keep letting this be a game of fragile racist emotions vs the majority of people who wants this to change. Change is not a dirty word. The kids (our future) want this to change, & that every ounce of time digging in your heels to hold onto the past , a memory of a time where there were extreme restrictions on voting rights for the indigenous for example, is a complete distraction and a massive waste of time. The confirmation bias to the contrary not withstanding. It still boggles the mind that a child from this school will openly tell you about the racist bullying they have experienced & the board would prefer to enable that further rather than give a D that such bullying is even happening.

  3. Anthony John says:

    Amazing to me that 90% of Native Americans love their names and imagery being celebrated in public, yet the activists and academics are so twisted in their opinions to think that they know better than Natives. Context and intent matter. Activists intend to make Chieftain a pejorative term. 90% of Natives disagree and choose to elevate and reverr the Name Chieftain as an honorable Name. Ask rank and file Native Americans. They will tell you directly and overwhelmingly they have no issues with the name Chieftain.

    School boards and sports organizations have the opportunity to make this word officially hateful or honorable by their actions, for this generation and all those that follow. Choose wisely and keep this word from ever hurting others.

    Native names and imagery are protected, defended and saved by the Native American Guardian’s Association (NAGA). Educate not Eradicate – learn more here –

  4. Victoria Gardner says:

    To add:

    This is a great example, in reality, of a minority changing the rules when they don’t win.

    Because it was the majority of those of us who voted for our representatives who would make this brand of racism against the law.

  5. Victoria Gardner says:

    What a horrible legacy to make for yourselves. Between censoring drag queens, fighting against our residents decision to allow cannabis sales, allowing a (straight, cisgender) pedo to run rampant at the school for years, ignoring racist bullying, and affirming that bullying with this decision is really not inviting to young families like my own!

  6. Carrie Roy King says:

    No child is too young to see injustice, or to suffer from it. I am so proud of my children and their friends who were actively engaged in their school, called out inequalities where they saw it, and have worked so hard to make positive change. These visionary GM student leaders imagined a school mascot that would be welcoming, and unifying, and would help build an inclusive learning environment for students when few believed social change was even a remote possibility in this entrenched community.

    By the school board members citing a lack of an “enforcement clause” in the VT law, asking to strike out the word “indirectly” in the adopted AOE policy, and demanding the GM principal simply “rebrand” this divisive <50 year old sexist and racist mascot before reinstating it, the board has acknowledged that “Chieftains” references something that is prohibited by Vermont’s ACT 152. It’s true, kids do indeed pick up new knowledge and skills way faster than adults.

    Read the 2022 Vermont state law that this school board has willfully violated here:

  7. Matthew Gorsky says:

    The argument is simple to put in easy to follow terms.

    The Law reads as folows: “The policy shall prohibit school branding that directly or indirectly references or stereotypes the likeness, features, symbols, traditions, or other characteristics that are specific to either:
    (A) the race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity of any person or group of persons; or
    (B) any person, group of persons, or organization associated with the repression of others.”

    This represents the minimum bar a mascot/name/brand of school must meet. The School Board, with it’s vote last evening, has posited that a 2 year separation from 50 years of branding, as a school who depicted their mascot as a plains native american (not allowable under part A of the policy), is enough that it no longer indirectly references that mascot. Anyone with working critical thinking skills can easily see this as a spurious argument meant to circumvent a clearly written law. This is why I will be putting this up to the State level for further adjudication by the Secretary of Education, as allowed by the Law.

  8. Richard Pease-Grant says:

    Gee I went to two high schools one was panthers the other was tigers Problem Solved!

  9. Evan Parks says:

    “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

    -Angela Y. Davis

  10. Raymond Makul says:

    What should be a mole hill got turned into a mountain. They should have just changed the mascot to “Scholars” or “Bookworms” and moved on to more important things. Such as, the education of the students. Political correctness, and entrenched resistance to political correctness, leads our School Board off the track and into a comedy of errors. Maybe they should turn their attention to how well the school system prepares students for higher education or entering the work force with some level of useful skills.

  11. Joshua Carlisle says:

    As a GMUHS alum i ask all those againt the and logo two things one did you actually attend this school?2 what is derogatory about using a person in a position of honor to promote school pride the chieftan through all the years i grew up in the community represented all of those things from 1978 to 1991 i never once heard anyone say that the chieftan or those representing this mascot of doing anything to degrade or be derogatory to native Americans or there culture and in my opinion it is more of the same woke joke flowing through other parts of the country also in my opinion if the current students want someone different by all means go for it but to do this to a honored tradition of the community and alum is nonsense drop the woke and let the students past and present decide.

  12. kevin kunze says:

    America, the land of Due Process. That is defined as “fair treatment through the normal judicial system”. When ‘VOTING’ takes place, WE are examples of how we support our system of operations. It is shameful how when our Voting Today takes place, so many stomp their feet when Voting does not go their way. If those in positions of authority will only serve if they get their own way 100% of the time, how is that a good example of being a Public Servant?” If people want to step down, so be it. We need leaders that will work under the Rules of Order as they have been set up. If the Vote did go the OTHER WAY, should the other side walk out too? It shows that our system has broken down into chaos. How does this show a good example to our students? SHAME!

  13. G. Donohue says:

    Wow! Absolutely shocking and disappointing! I will not be supporting any GM budgets until this is fixed and I encourage other community members to do the same. For the directors to be willing to lose a superintendent and continue to be in violation of state law is beyond belief! GM has set their course on a slippery slope, to my dismay. Bravo to the Superintendent for making a difficult but correct choice.

  14. Jen Leak says:

    If the Board truly wanted to rebrand the name Chieftain’s then the logo would not be allowed on school grounds. Clearly, this has not been the case. I am so very disappointed. People should not be objectified, in any way. Period.

  15. Deborah Velto says:

    The pro-Chieftain side keeps talking about how they “aren’t using” the stereotypical images – but Otis Nelson is literally wearing the logo in the photo. It looks like a T-shirt he had printed himself. It just proves that the alumni will never stop using it, and wearing the logo if the name remains attached to this school.

    What an embarrassment. I feel so sorry for the students at GMUHS who worked to make this change to improve their school, and have been completely ignored.

    What a terrible lesson to learn – I wonder what stories they will take out into the world about GMUHS after they graduate? Thank you to all the board members who stood up for them (Schroeder, Reilly, Lamphere, Murphy, Perani, Perlah, and to Lauren Fierman for her refusing to give into this harmful behavior. Hope the taxpayers don’t mind paying the additional legal fees that this is going to require now.

  16. Craig Miller says:

    I still think changing the name to “The Carlin’s” would be the most fitting. Big thanks to Senator Dick to enabling this paradigm.