District reveals ‘student-led’ plan to select new mascots for Hills and Valley

The Board of Education and members of the public discussed and debated the selection process of new mascots for Hills and Valley and the original decision.


Briana Keenan

“I just want to acknowledge the work of all the staff… it has just been a daily rollercoaster,” Board President Tammy Molinelli said of the Covid-19 situation.

‘It has just been a daily rollercoaster’

At an often-heated meeting Monday night, the Pascack Valley Regional High School District Board of Education discussed the selection process of new mascots for Hills and Valley, stressing it as something that would be student-led. Back in June, the district received passionate, and sometimes vitriolic, praise and criticism after the Board voted unanimously to remove the Cowboy and Indian mascots from Hills and Valley. Two members later said they regretted the decision.

With the Covid-19 pandemic surging in New Jersey and nationwide, concerns regarding school closures and clubs were brought up at the beginning of the meeting. Valley went fully remote a week and a half ago due to two positive Covid-19 tests, and Hills also went fully remote from today until Nov. 5 due to its own two cases, Gundersen reported.

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“I just want to acknowledge the work of all the staff… it has just been a daily rollercoaster,” Board President Tammy Molinelli said of the situation.

Aria Chalileh and Connor Flinn, the Hills and Valley student representatives to the Board, reported on how Hills is participating in safe activities during the pandemic. “PV theatre has been remotely rehearsing our play,” Flinn said.

Bachenheimer presents standardized testing results 

In addition to school extracurriculars and activities, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Barry Bachenheimer reported on Hills and Valley’s standardized testing.

“The state of New Jersey has not yet released any information if there will be any testing in the spring” for the NJSLA, he said. These tests are required by federal law, but it is unknown if they will occur or not. 

In terms of the Advanced Placement Program (AP) testing, Bachenheimer reported on the testing from the past spring, noting that “82% of normal scores remained within the normal deviations” and that “our results are now almost equal to seven years ago in terms of where we are performance-wise.”

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Later, Councilman Chris Roche asked about the date when Hills would tentatively return in-person. “The reason why we said Nov. 5 is that is the end of the 14-day period of time, and it allows athletics to take place during that weekend,” Gundersen explained. 

Public comments take issue with mascot removal, asynchronous learning 

Michael Cuffe, a Hillsdale resident and Valley graduate, said he did not agree with discussing the mascot due to the upcoming Board of Education elections on Nov. 3, for which voters are already submitting their completed ballots. “I don’t think that process should be rushed because I think it can be revisited,” he argued. 

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Maria Geanopulos, a Montvale resident, also disagreed with discussing the mascot change right now. “The elections are next week, why are we pushing it? Especially during these difficult times –– now, everyone is remote,” she said, connecting it to the nature of the original mascot removal.

“There will probably be no perfect time to engage what will be the new mascot… this will be a thoughtful process that will take some time,” Gundersen responded. 

Beth Glazer, another Montvale resident, asked about Hills going remote and teaching in group lectures synchronously with the new schedule.

“One of the things that can be improved,” Gundersen said the district noted from feedback, “is the synchronousness of our classes. More recently, we have allowed and advocated for some teachers depending on the subject area if it’s conducive to engage students in more synchronous learning.”

“We will see more and more engagement as we continue on. There are certainly other ways to engage students, and we are working on that,” Bachenheimer said. 

‘I would just like to see a little more synchronous learning,” Glazer responded.

Athletic directors present new mascot selection process

Sean Buchanan, the athletic director at Valley, presented with Hills Athletic Director Phil Paspalas about how each school would determine a new mascot after the Cowboy and Indian were removed in June. Buchanan said “[t]he process will be held in both buildings simultaneously. It will be student-driven, and the mascots will represent student pride in each school.”

In summary, Paspalas said that each school would have its own student advisory committee “facilitated by the athletic directors and staff members within each building.” He stressed the district’s interest in student involvement in the process “like it was 50-plus years ago.”

He explained in detail that the student advisory committee would include student government members, student-athletes, and members of clubs and organizations, along with a variety of teachers and coaches. There will first be a preliminary meeting to generate ideas that Paspalas said “don’t just represent athletics but represent the school and the community in an appropriate fashion. Things that convey strength and determination as well as equity and kindness and so on.”

Buchanan added, “We want to get a wide variety of the students involved. The ultimate goal that each goal will have is that the student advisory committee has three top options.”

Once the three top options are selected by the committee, the student body and staff at each school would vote on the choices. If no choice receives a 50% or more majority, the top two choices would be voted on again in a “runoff.” 

“At the end of the day, the number one most central theme” is that “the students are the ones that feel good about it,” Molinelli said. “It’s a very healthy and important aspect of what it looks like moving forward.”

“It’s going to be a long process,” said Buchanan, roughly estimating January for when the mascot choices would be presented to the Board. “We do not anticipate it being set within the next week or so.” 

“We really want the kids to take their time, think this through, and do this the right way so that when this is done, everyone can feel good about the direction we’ve chosen,” he continued.

Equity Committee reports findings

The Equity Committee met prior to the last Board meeting, and discussed adding statements to the district’s equity statement, which Board member Arnold Scher reported on. “33% saw that there wasn’t equity, or bullying issues,” he said. 

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Blundo stated the changes were made to create more accepting language. “We went through the 25 tedious state mandates and changed the language,” he said. 

The Board also discussed possibly opening up their meetings to the public, which would only be limited to 25 people in person. They would also host the meeting on Zoom, which allows it to be open to the public. 

“Ms. [Claudia] Gibbs is working on a system where the public can sign up, and those who are home can tune in on Zoom,” Gundersen explained. 

Board hears, responds to second round of public comments

This is not a forum for political dialogue. Everyone has the opportunity to vote, but this is not a place where politics happens. Republican, Democrat, it’s just not part of our agenda.

— Board President Tammy Molinelli

Hillsdale resident Jessica Folic, argued that “there is no equality and inclusivity within this decision…there was no transparency.” 

Although Folic’s son is not on a sports team, and Gundersen said that “all students will have a vote” in the schools’ mascot selection. 

Cuffe spoke again and said that “the people who are in after the election should be making [the decision about the mascot], let’s wait for the new members to make this decision.” 

“It’s the students coming up with what they want to be represented as,” Molinelli replied.