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Cambridge got a ‘deal’ in legal costs to defend its mascot, expert says

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CAMBRIDGE — The cost to take the pro-mascot lawsuit against the state all the way to the Appellate Division was $58,000 for the Cambridge school district.

That appears to be much less than the typical cost, said Leslie Silva, a partner at Tully Rinckey PLLC’s Albany office, which did not represent the district. “It’s certainly well below the standard of what litigation like this would typically cost,” she said. “$58,000 could’ve been a Supreme Court cost alone.”

The district was able to pay less because Cambridge’s already contracted law firm, Honeywell, prepared the lawsuit arguing that the district should be able to keep its mascot. The district had called its students “the Indians” with a mascot logo of a stereotypical Indigenous person.

The school board voted to retire the mascot and select something unrelated to Indigenous people for the rural district, which is largely made up of white students. But school board candidates ran for election with the platform of saving the mascot, and were elected in a landslide. At the first meeting in which they held the majority, they voted to restore the mascot.

Some parents complained to state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, who told the board to get rid of the mascot. Cambridge sued. After Cambridge lost in Supreme Court, the state told all districts to drop any mascots or nicknames that referred to Indigenous people.

Cambridge appealed the loss to the Appellate Division, which heard the case this month.

Some critics said Cambridge was likely spending too much on a lost cause — but unbeknown to the public — the district was still benefiting from the low costs included in its contract with Honeywell, according to district documents shared with the Times Union through a Freedom of Information Law request.

After Honeywell began working on the lawsuit two years ago, the district hired a new law firm for its standard needs. Honeywell agreed to finish the case at the cost it would have charged under its original contract with the district.

According to bills provided through FOIL, the district’s biggest expense was $16,440 in March 2022, when Honeywell and the state had oral arguments before a state Supreme Court justice.

Cambridge lost and appealed to the Appellate Division. In the 18 months that led up to the oral arguments in front of a panel of judges in October, the district spent $31,745.

Silva said the district got a “good deal.”

Oral arguments alone could be quite costly, she said.

“You have to do intensive research to prepare for that,” she said. “That costs quite a bit.”

The case may end up being declared moot by the Appellate Division judges because the state is now requiring all school districts to replace their Indigenous-related mascots. If Cambridge were to win its case, it would still have to follow the new rules and replace its mascot.

But Silva said it’s sometimes worth spending the money even in a case that seems unlikely to win.

“Sometimes you have to just consider you’re investing in the fight if the issue is important to you and you want to have your voice heard.”

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