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Mukwonago High School: Indians mascot will stay for now

Jan. 8, 2013

The wall in the Mukwonago High School gymnasium proclaiming, "This is Indian country," will remain until the Mukwonago Area School District hears the last word on the mascot issue. This despite a ruling by the Wisconsin appeals court Jan. 3 that overturned a decision by Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Donald Hassin Jr. that would have allowed the district to keep the mascot.

Hassin previously found that the state Department of Public Instruction had violated the due process rights of the district after Mukwonago residents Craig Vertz and James Schoolcraft challenged the DPI decision on the Mukwonago mascot in November 2010. But the appeals court maintained Vertz and Schoolcraft had no grounds to file a lawsuit on the decision since they were not part of the initial hearing.

MASD Superintendent Paul Strobel said he thinks they "haven't heard the last word on this."

"It is disappointing that the court of appeals chose not to rule on the merits of the case but rather focused on a technicality," Strobel said. "I have written our legislative representatives today asking them to sponsor legislation that would repeal the Indian logo statute so this matter can finally be resolved."

With an Oct. 8, 2013, deadline for changing the logo on specific maintenance items such as the south wall in the north gymnasium, Strobel said the district "will not take any additional steps until we hear from our legislators."

Repainting the wall and changing the logo on the message board in front of the high school are among the biggest ticket items that would need to be addressed, with an estimated price tag of about $50,000, along with other changes throughout MHS. "We're going to be very, very cautious in doing anything," Strobel added. "We haven't heard the last word on this. It changed once, it can change again. … It's now time to repeal the statue and bring this whole thing to a close. Until we get a response to see if state legislators are going to pursue legislation, we're not going to take a step."

Samuel Hall, an attorney representing Schoolcraft and Vertz, said he plans to petition the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the wake of the appeals court's decision.

"We are disappointed in the court's ruling and believe that all taxpayers should be given their day in court to challenge a law and a process that could cost them thousands of dollars and otherwise impact their community," said Hall. "While we plan to file a petition for review with the Wisconsin Supreme Court, we again encourage the Legislature to repeal this law and spare the taxpayers and the courts from unnecessary costs."

Vertz said taxpayers should have a voice.

"We will continue to look for representatives in Madison to change the law, and we will keep on slugging," said Vertz.

Sen. Neil Kedzie, who backed a move by Sen. Mary Lazich and Rep. Stephen Nass to repeal the mascot law, was surprised by the appeals court decision.

"I thought we had a pretty good chance of remedying this," Kedzie said.

Kedzie said it was a little confusing as to how there can be a "level playing field" when one resident can file a complaint against the district, but other residents can't file complaints as taxpayers.

Kedzie couldn't speak to whether the repeal would be addressed again at the state level, since that is usually taken up by the authors of the bill. Lazich couldn't be reached for comment before deadline.

While this could end up in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, it doesn't have to hear on the issue, said Kedzie, adding that the matter is in "political limbo" right now.

With the Indian logo being used for the past 80 years in Mukwonago, Kedzie said it is frustrating to say it was an "ill-intended logo."

Representative David Craig supported efforts to repeal the law last year also. He and Nass will be meeting with the Assembly leadership to discuss legislative options.

"I have made it clear in the past, and continue to believe, that a full repeal of this law is the correct course of action," Craig said.

Case history

MASD has used the Indians nickname and a logo of an Indian man wearing a feathered headdress for more than 80 years. Mukwonago resident Rain Koepke filed a complaint on July 21, 2010 about the name and logo, about two months after the law was passed.

DPI employee Paul Sherman held a hearing in August 2010 and determined the nickname and logo were race-based and that the district hadn't gotten the permission of any Native American tribe to use them. A month later, in October 2010, the department ordered the district to drop the name and logo.

The district didn't challenge the order, but parents of some current and former Mukwonago students sued, contending that Sherman was biased because he worked for the DPI, and they said, agency officials have advocated against race-based nicknames. They argued they had standing to sue because they're taxpayers, and Mukwonago's efforts to change its name and logo would cost them money. Hall's briefs estimate the total cost to the district at $100,000.

Hassin ultimately sided with the parents and blocked the DPI order, preserving the nickname.

State attorneys argued on appeal that Sherman was fair, and that the parents should have asked a judge to review Sherman's decision rather than immediately filing a lawsuit. They also argued that the parents lacked the legal standing to sue because they weren't a party to the proceedings.

The 2nd District Court of Appeals sided with the state. In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel ruled the parents had no standing because they weren't a party to the original proceedings, which took place between the agency and the School District. The parents also should have sought judicial review of the DPI's order before they sued, the court said, calling their tactics an "end-run collateral attack."

Barbara Munson, an Oneida Indian who chairs the Wisconsin Indian Education Association's Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force, said she hopes the appeals court ruling encourages other Wisconsin districts with Indian mascots to change.

"It's a decision I was hoping would happen," Munson said. "It really is deeply my hope that school districts do the right thing and eliminate this form of stereotype."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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