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Gary Stefano

Gary Stefano lost his job as Maple Grove boys’ hockey coach after public outcry stemming from an off-ice incident.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Tony Sarsland, former Elk River boys' hockey coach

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune file

Former boys hockey coach Jeff Pauletti spoke to a group of supporters outside Roseville High School on May 15, 2012.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Minnesota House bill has shield for high school coaches under fire

  • Article by: Megan Ryan
  • Star Tribune
  • April 28, 2013 - 11:34 PM

Louder and more frequent parent complaints about high school coaches have the Legislature considering more protection for them, a plan that apparently would be a first in the nation.

The bill, introduced by a former high school cross-country coach, arrives after the departure of dozens of Minnesota coaches, often amid pressure from increasingly vocal and demanding parents about more playing time or better roles for their high school athletes.

The measure, in the House omnibus bill, would add one line to an existing statute on coaching contract renewal: “The existence of parent complaints must not be the sole reason for a board to not renew a coaching contract.’’

Supporters believe it will provide more protection for coaches who face annual contract renewal. Critics such as the Minnesota School Boards Association say it will undermine the authority of school boards tasked with such contract decisions.

It’s expected to be considered next week when a House-Senate conference committee meets. The bill’s sponsor and a national high school official say they are not aware of other states that have adopted such a provision.

“This just came out from athletics directors and coaches who thought something more needed to be done,” said Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Grove City Republican who co-authored the bill. “The problem is … parents are entering into the realm of coaching too much and … what would address that concern?”

It also stemmed in part from two highly publicized resignations of boys’ hockey coaches last spring — Jeff Pauletti at Roseville and Tony Sarsland at Elk River. Both faced long-running opposition from parents.

Earlier this year, Gary Stefano lost his job as Maple Grove boys’ hockey coach after public outcry stemming from an off-ice incident at a private home for which 13 players were suspended. Earlier this month, Cloquet boys’ hockey coach Dave Esse kept his job despite parental complaints after a school board vote.

Dismissals on rise

The number of coaches’ contracts not being renewed has risen in the past 10 years, said John Erickson, executive director of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association, citing a “more complicated setting for coaches” than a decade ago.

In boys’ hockey, 110 coaches have left in the past five years and at least 38 of the departures — about 35 percent — involved parental complaints, said Mike MacMillan, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association.

Erickson estimated he receives an average of 10 to 15 calls each school year from coaches who are dealing with parent complaints.

Pauletti said he has heard from coaches from various sports from across the country who had undergone experiences similar to his. He said he believes this bill will help protect coaches, who are at-will employees on yearly contracts.

“If this was a teacher, would you react the same way?” Pauletti said. “A teacher has a union behind them who’s going to step in and help them … coaches don’t have anything like that.”

Erickson equated the situation to replacing the teacher if a student did poorly on math test. While “the vast majority of parents are wonderful supporters of the school systems and of the athletic programs and of their children,” Erickson said “the squeakiest wheel always gets the attention.”

Said Pauletti: “Parents feel entitled. ‘I spent $10,000, my son or daughter should be better than the person who’s only spent maybe $1,000 or nothing.’ And that’s not always the case.”

Urdahl was a part of the original coaching statute that explains the contract renewal process and authored the addition. A former teacher and coach whose son is an activities director and baseball coach, Urdahl said no personal experience or specific coaching incident led him to add the sentence.

Challenge to authority

Rep. Kathy Brynaert, a Democrat from Mankato and former school board member, tried to amend the sentence out of the omnibus bill in the Education Finance committee. She said the bill “unnecessarily narrows and undermines board authority,” adding that board members are publicly elected officials responsible to their constituents.

She said coaches have recourse in the existing statute. Boards must notify coaches of nonrenewal within 14 days, provide reasons for the nonrenewal when requested and allow coaches a reasonable opportunity to respond at a board meeting.

Brynaert also expressed concern that the term “sole reason” in the bill was too vague and left school boards open to litigation.

The Minnesota School Boards Association also opposes the bill as unnecessary and believes it closes off board members from constituents, said Kirk Schneidawaind, deputy executive director.

Erickson said the bill would not ignore concerns about coaches committing immoral, unethical or unlawful actions.

The House bill passed Tuesday. The Senate’s omnibus bill, which does not have the same language on coaching, passed on Thursday. A conference committee will most likely meet next week to take up the two big bills and decide the fate of the coaching provision.

Rep. Paul Marquart, a Democrat from Dilworth and former wrestling coach who authored the coaching bill and the House omnibus bill, said he will fight for the provision but acknowledged that it’s not a top priority.

Marquart said he did not have any model legislation for crafting the sentence. Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said he keeps track of such legislation and has not heard of any similar state statutes. He said the national association and other state associations will monitor the provision’s effect in Minnesota before deciding to adopt similar language.

To help deal with coaching issues like parent complaints, Erickson’s organization, the Minnesota State High School League and the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association have collaborated on a conference set for August.

“Why I coach, the way I coach, how does it feel to play for me?” Erickson said. “Those kinds of questions that coaches need to do some self-reflection and say, ‘How is it that I can coach in this day and age as opposed to before?’ ”

 

Megan Ryan is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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