Other Views: Starting the discussion

School mascot bill provides a middle path for Oregon high schools, tribes

It bounced around the legislative session and took some unexpected turns along the way — what legislative measure does not? — but Gov. John Kitzhaber last week signed into law a long-overdue revision of the state policy regarding Oregon public schools that use Native American mascots.

The bill allows school districts to continue using the mascots if they enter into agreements to do so with Oregon's federally recognized Native American tribes.

The measure is somewhat similar to a bill that passed the Legislature (by wide margins in both houses) during the 2013 session. Kitzhaber vetoed that bill, the only full veto he issued last year.

The bill Kitzhaber signed Thursday, Senate Bill 1509, is a compromise measure that kicks the issue back to where it started, the Oregon Board of Education.

In 2012, that board passed a sweeping ban forbidding public schools from using Native American mascots. Schools that ignored the ban ran the risk of losing state funding.

Under the terms of the bill, the board now must develop rules under which schools can continue to use the mascots. It seems likely that the board will work toward the sort of exemption Kitzhaber has said he favors all along, something similar to how the NCAA allows schools such as Florida State University to strike deals with tribes such as the Seminoles.

In no small measure, the bill's passage is thanks to the work of Scio Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, who helped carry the bill in the House and who has been pushing for a measure like this since the initial ban went into effect. (In the mid-valley, the ban affects high schools in Philomath and Lebanon, both of which use the "Warriors" nickname and some Native American imagery.)

Sprenger's original hope was that the measure would open the doors for some wide-ranging and honest discussions between school districts and Oregon tribes.

That still could happen, but much depends on how the Board of Education now chooses to interpret its duties. Sprenger has confessed to being worried about that, and her concerns seem well-placed: After all, this is the same board that enacted the heavy-handed ban in the first place.

We expect that Sprenger will be keeping a close eye on how the board moves on this, in hopes of helping to craft rules that facilitate those continuing conversations between schools and tribes.

Sprenger also has volunteered to visit every affected district to help kick-start those conversations. If we were administrators in those districts, that's an invitation we'd accept.

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