A new law enacted to keep disgruntled parents from costing Minnesota high school coaches their jobs seems to have quelled some of the potential firings.
Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the law stipulated that “parent complaints must not be the sole reason” for a school board to get rid of a coach. It was passed in 2013 after high-profile boys’ hockey coaches were ousted and amid pleas from coaches under growing pressure from demanding parents unhappy about playing time and team roles for their children.
In 2013-14, during the first school year with the new measure in place, calls from coaches seeking help dropped significantly, according to a statewide coaches association.
But heading into a new fall season, coaching advocates say parent complaints remain a significant issue, often contributing to coaches leaving jobs voluntarily before ever having to face the sting of not having their year-to-year contracts renewed.
Tim Sension experienced both.
Sension, who coached girls’ basketball at St. Louis Park for two seasons, resigned in March after he was told that parents had complained, he said. He said he was not told specifics of the complaints and that his only alternative was to not have his contract renewed. Sension, who previously coached boys’ basketball at Breck and spent seven years as an assistant girls’ basketball coach at Hopkins, figured his future coaching chances would be better if he resigned.
Sension, a grade-level coordinator at the high school and an assistant softball coach, said he had a change of heart after hearing from players and parents within the long-suffering program who supported his admittedly high-intensity approach.
“I’ve got eight kids that played basketball for me that play softball,” he said. “If I’m that bad that they won’t let me come back and coach basketball, why am I still able to coach softball? And why am I able to still work there full-time?”
Sension rescinded his letter and decided to fight. It didn’t change the outcome. A May 17 letter from the St. Louis Park school board to Sension said his “coaching style was detrimental to the well-being of our students” and that he “engaged in conduct that both degraded and humiliated” players.
Sension said the letter marked the first time he was told his ouster stemmed from anything other than parent complaints. He strongly denied the allegations and said efforts to find out specifics have been stonewalled by privacy laws.
“If I did things wrong, then fine, make me go away,” Sension said. “But I still don’t know what I did. They won’t tell me.”
The school district sees it differently. Board Chair Nancy Gores told him at a June 23 meeting, opened to the public at Sension’s request, that more than parent complaints led to the board’s decision. She did not elaborate as members voted 5-0, with two abstentions, to not renew Sension’s coaching contract.
But the district and Sension agree on one thing: The process that led to his ouster could have been handled better.
Calls down, pressure remains
Until the spring of 2013, about 10 to 15 coaches dealing with parent complaints would call John Erickson each year, seeking his advice as executive director of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association. In the year since the new law was signed, Erickson said he heard from only two coaches. One was Sension.
But fewer calls can be misleading.
“This new legislation has had zero effect on protecting coaches,” said Tim Morris, Minnesota Girls Hockey Association executive director. Parent complaints were involved in “more than half” of the 16 coaching openings since the 2013-14 season ended, he said.
Rogers girls’ hockey coach Dale Sager can relate. He resigned after his first season at Centennial despite support from school administration to return. Clashing with combative parents, he said, became too much to bear.
Sager, girls’ hockey coaches association president, said he had sent an e-mail to Rep. Dean Urdahl, who authored the bill, to share his gratitude for the effort. But personal experience marred Sager’s enthusiasm.
“I haven’t heard of it helping anyone keep their job,” Sager said. “Coaches who leave say it’s for family or more time but a lot of them just get tired of dealing with the off-ice stuff. Playing time and who plays where aren’t reasons to be fired.”
In boys’ hockey, 19 coaches have left since last season, including three who were dealing with parent complaints, said Mike MacMillan, executive director of the hockey coaches association.
Half of the girls’ basketball coaches hired in 2009 are no longer head coaches, said Carl Pierson, recently elected president of the state girls’ basketball coaches association. Based on his 12 years of experience as a head coach in Minnesota, Pierson said he “would confidently say over 40 percent of them were pushed out of the profession by parental pressures.”
Urdahl said Erickson’s group “outlined a procedure for dismissal” of coaches but it did not have enough legislative support to pass. Sension said he would like to see coaches afforded the same protection as teachers covered by union contracts.
Erickson and Urdahl said eliminating parent complaints was never the bill’s intent.
“You want some parental oversight in all your programs,” Erickson said. “But it’s absolutely required of you to thoroughly vet complaints – to have some integrity in the process. You can’t do that with a haphazard investigation. Hopefully we’ve helped activities directors be able to tell parents, ‘Look, this isn’t how we go about this.’ ”
Added Urdahl, “If school administrators really want to get rid of a coach, they can. They can still get creative with their reasons.”
Flawed process, same result
According to Sension, things started to unravel for him on March 26, three weeks after the team concluded a 7-19 season.
The Orioles had lost in the playoffs to Hopkins, where Sension spent five years as a varsity assistant. He had helped the Royals to three Class 4A state championships before coming to St. Louis Park, where losing was the norm.
Frustration mounted as his second season wore on. Sension experimented with his lineup, including a radical move in which units of five players were substituted multiple times each game. That resulted in less playing time for some players.
Sension said he won over players, building unity with offseason workouts and instilling pride by raising money for traveling team apparel, but never endeared himself to parents. Sension told them they were not allowed at practice and not allowed to talk to him about basketball.
Sension met with St. Louis Park activities director Andy Ewald and Principal Joann Karetov on March 26 expecting to review his self-evaluation for the season. At the meeting’s end, Sension learned his coaching contract would not be renewed.
He chose to resign, but after changing his mind, he filed a grievance with the district on April 15 to be reinstated as varsity coach.
That same day, basketball parent Kathleen Perkins e-mailed Ewald, Karetov and Superintendent Robert Metz. She stated support for Sension to remain as the varsity coach and expressed her frustration with the process that led to his nonrenewal. The e-mail listed 13 parents as supporters.
None of them was interviewed for additional perspective, said Perkins, who was part of the committee who hired Sension.
Metz declined to provide specifics on the breadth of their investigation. Through a district spokesperson, Ewald declined to comment. Karetov did not comment when reached.
Sension said he was told at a May 8 meeting with Karetov and Metz that “they did what they would term an inquiry where they talked to those parents; they talked supposedly to a couple of players of those parents.”
Metz told the Star Tribune: “The meeting was very brief. If the meeting could have been longer it would have given all sides an opportunity to be heard and it might have been possible to avoid this long process.”
Metz added: “The nonrenewal process we used could have been better, but the decision to nonrenew his coaching contract would not have changed.”
Sension all but acknowledged his fate was sealed when he spoke to the board for 30 minutes last month.
“I’m here because of principle,” he said. “I’m here for other St. Louis Park coaches and more coaches metrowide.”