As a person who has coached hundreds of children in our school district and a father of four current students, I feel compelled to comment about the board’s recent discussions and actions regarding the former Harwood boys’ hockey coach.
The board has set a really bad and expensive precedent by voting to investigate a matter of employment termination. Even having this topic as an agenda item was alarming given the fact that minors were involved. Simply put, matters of at-will employee terminations are 100% the responsibility of our administrators and far outside the purview of what a school board should discuss in public. People who are fired are never happy and this sets a precedent that all such complaints need to be investigated.
The decision to investigate calls into question too many things to list, but among some of the more obvious:
1 The principals involved in this decision are now having their professional knowledge and judgment questioned by the very board that hired them less than a year ago. The resumes of these principals are far superior to those of any board member; they have extensive training in determining appropriate action when a parent files a serious and formal complaint involving their child. Put yourself in the shoes of the administrators – they have to decide in real time if those actions of the employee pose any form of threat to a student. At the root of this story, a parent felt compelled and concerned enough to lodge a formal complaint to the administration, it was not something the administration went looking to do.
2 Anyone who has coached children in the last 10 years, especially those who hold high level coaching licenses in their sport, are aware that zero tolerance is a common theme throughout coach training. Zero tolerance means exactly that for any matter of abuse -- and the scope of what is considered abuse is very broad. There is nothing written about ‘almost zero tolerance’, where, if you are a popular coach, backed by the community, you are held to a lesser standard.
3 Electronic or written communication from coaches to players always requires parents to be copied. Written communication is also expected to be positive, constructive and appropriate for the players and their development on the team. What is written and sent to players certainly is going to be held to a higher level of scrutiny than what is said in a fiery locker room speech.
4 What is the threshold for when the board gets involved in a matter of termination of an employee? Is it only an issue for the board topic if the employee is a popular male coach who is able to garner community support and petition? Bias can now be argued for any employee termination that is not awarded an investigation. This action has created a big liability for the district.
5 How does spending a projected sum of $30,000 of taxpayer money to investigate this matter benefit my children who attend district schools? None of them are ice hockey players. It sure would be great if we spent this amount of money in a way that benefits all students. Or are we so robust in funding that the board is not concerned with the expense of this investigation?
6 It’s been noted that the board is behind their timeline on the high school bond discussion. But they’ve spent two hours discussing a topic outside their purview. This will consume more time at future meetings. Our high school has water being collected in trash buckets because our roof leaks, but the board feels compelled to spend precious time in areas outside its scope?
7 What will the board do with the conclusions found in the investigation? What can it do with the conclusions found in the investigation? Will there be a public discussion about the parent and students involved in the complaint? Will there be discussion on the reasons for the coach’s firing? The investigation will only cause more harm in this entire matter. The board should have listened to its members who rightfully said it should be case closed.
8 A few board member comments during the meeting particularly stood out. One felt the employee didn’t have a voice, and no opportunity for recourse. There most certainly is recourse -- take the employer to court. If the former coach feels he was wrongfully terminated, he can file a lawsuit and have a court of law decide the merits of that. The taxpayers of the district should not have to foot the bill of this investigation.
Please make the students of our district the focal point of the work of the board. Just a hint, combining our two middle schools( that are 5 miles apart ) into one real middle school and promoting a bond to upgrade our circa 1965 high school are the real issues facing our district.
In putting the original motion on your next agenda -- at the unanimous request of the district’s administrative team -- the board has the opportunity to correct this mistake and protect the liability of the district. Please do just that -- listen to your administrators and put the matter to rest.
Dan Sullivan lives in Waitsfield.