Editorial: School athletics controversy ignited by social media “town square” ruffles feathers

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Editor’s note: I tried to gather as much information as I could regarding this controversy and compile it in a coherent article/editorial that didn’t take three pages. (I probably rewrote it seven or more times). Unfortunately, a crucial post with many replies posted on one of the closed Kohler Facebook groups appeared to have been deleted by the author, removing a valuable source for getting the community members’ side of the story. It’s for that reason I get on my soapbox at the end of this article to editorialize my feelings about social media and the role it plays as the modern-day town square. I also ran out of time trying to perfect this article, so please forgive any errors, typos, lack of flow or too much “preachiness.” Anyone wishing to correct any of this information or set the record straight is more than welcome.

Some Kohler School Board members were taken aback to see a crowd of constituents packing the library for the June 17 School Board meeting, followed by the Committee of the Whole meeting. Some school administrators were a little perturbed that the large crowd showed up based on a “rumor” that numerous sports and co-ops were going to be eliminated, and teachers were going to replace coaches who were not employed by Kohler Schools. Superintendent Quynh Trueblood was adamant in stating there have been no active administrative actions to even consider eliminating any sports, whether co-ops or not. The exercise before the board was to provide information to overlay the entire program and to let people deal with those numbers and how they interpret that was not up to her. She said the administration just wants to lay out the facts to help the board in its work. The intention was just to ask “where are we?”

To me, “rumor” didn’t quite seem like the right word to describe what brought the impassioned crowd to the meeting. The primary issue appeared to be a feeling that the athletic director was taking action on his own that advanced an agenda of eliminating some sports and coaches. Rumor or not, members of the public, including athletic students and coaches, took advantage of the public speaking session at the regular board meeting to voice their support for co-ops, having a good variety of sports offerings, and for keeping the dedicated non-staff coaches.

The controversy appeared to have been ignited when a well-respected volleyball coach was notified that she was being let go from her coaching job. Later, other coaches reportedly felt they were next on the chopping block after “feeler” emails were sent out by the athletic director asking teachers if they wanted to coach. Superintendent Quynh Trueblood assured everyone that the same email is sent out every year and that it was all a misunderstanding.

In an Interscholastic Athletics Report by the school’s athletic director Joe Hildebrand the following two items are listed under “Challenges”: “Gaining on-staff teacher-coaching stability. The goal would be to make progress toward reaching a 50/50 balance.” and “Increasing student participation in off-season training is lacking in part due to off-staff coaching.”

This raised red flags for some parents and coaches alike when the well-respected volleyball coach was fired, followed by the “feeler” email sent to teaching staff. During the public speaking session at the June 17 board meeting, many made their satisfaction with non-staff coaches known, should there be plans to fire more non-staff coaches.

The crowd was assured that coaches wouldn’t be fired via email. The matter would have to go through several channels and the coach would receive written notice. When I emailed the athletic director seeking a copy of the emails, I instead received a call from Superintendent Quynh Trueblood saying the public reaction to the “feeler” email sent to teachers was “emotional” rather than a “factual,” and I could not have the emails due to it being a “personnel issue.” Yet since then, I have learned from a school board member that the volleyball coach was indeed fired by email, and not a written letter. There’s no way to confirm facts in this instance since I cannot view the emails. So the emotional reaction from concerned citizens wasn’t entirely unwarranted.

Also on the table for discussion that raised concerns was whether Kohler Schools should align their offerings with the Big East conference and develop these programs to be competitive, or should the school continue to offer more than what the Big East conference sponsors so students have a bigger variety of sports offerings to choose from, even if it means being on losing teams?

President Jane Bishop laid out questions the board has been tasked to consider regarding current programs, and what they may look like five years from now to determine if they are on the right track.

She said as the board looked at the athletic programs several things came to their attention over the past year. One of them is the school board policy for athletic programs and what they want to see from them, and what have they identified as problematic. She enumerated questions that were being considered: Are athletic programs offerings aligned to our purpose and objectives? Should Kohler align our offerings with the Big East conference and develop these programs to be competitive? Are those the only programs we want to have? Do we care what conference we are in? Should Kohler continue to offer more than what the Big East sponsors? Although exploring and providing many opportunities is the reason for having program offerings through co-ops, do we want to develop limits on the number of co-op offerings to keep them feasible, or allow more to be added? There was also a question of whether feeder teams in the lower grades could be sustained once the current middle schoolers move up to high school,

The current policy’s purpose and objectives are as follows:

Existing policy states: “The purpose of an interscholastic program is to provide the benefits of an athletic experience for as large a number of students as feasible within the District.

The existing policy also states: “The objective of an interscholastic team is to strive to win and be competitive and promote the ideals of good sportsmanship, ethics, and integrity.”

The board discussed whether the two contradicted each other and whether the school’s goal should be to strive to be number one in a selective number of sports, or is the philosophy and approach to serving as many students as they can in a variety of sports? One board member made the point that “striving” to win doesn’t necessarily mean “must” win. Many members of the public agreed with that statement, as they believed students should have a wide variety of sports to choose from, even if they aren’t all winning teams. Others in the audience pointed out that the school is very pro-active in making sure students are academic winners, why can’t the same be expected for athletics? But many felt that canceling a sport to bolster others in achieving that goal is not going to make remaining sports stronger. Some said that canceling swimming and diving, for example, wouldn’t drive all those girls to basketball or volleyball or other Big East conference sports, especially if they have never played those sports before. They would probably sit on the bench. When Board President Bishop asked the parents if they would be okay with a team that loses a lot, there was a resounding “Yes!” from the crowd. Parents and athletic student speakers spoke of the friendships they made in the various sports and among co-op students.

While the school administration reiterated that they hadn’t taken any actions in the matter, it seemed to me that most of the audience members were simply upset by the fact that this discussion came up at all, as aligning with the Big East would eliminate a number of school sports, including girls swimming and diving, boys and girls hockey, trap shooting, boys golf, and boys and girls tennis. Football would also be eliminated, as the WIAA Board of Control voted this past April to approve a football-only conference for 2020 that moves Kohler/Sheboygan Lutheran/Sheboygan County Christian (KLC) co-op team from the Big East Conference to the Eastern Wisconsin Conference.

These controversies have cropped up at Kohler schools at one time or another in the past 15 years or so. Some feel that having a small population of Kohler students spread out over so many sports prevents the school from having competitive, winning teams. In the past, there were those who thought Kohler’s new soccer team should be eliminated because it was stealing students away from the football team. There were those who complained that Kohler only seemed to excel at “country club” sports like golf and tennis. There were, and still are, those who have never liked the co-op program. There was even a small contingent of residents years ago who, in opposition to the school renovation referendum, felt the entire school should be eliminated to reduce taxes, and Kohler kids should be bussed to Sheboygan Falls or Howards Grove.

There also seemed to be a disconnect between how the two sides of the issue defined “actions.” While the administration focused on making it known that there were no official actions taken by the administration, the constituents and some board members were inferring that there had been unofficial actions taken by the athletic director, like the firing of the volleyball coach, for example.

Board member John Horneck stated, “It doesn’t add up. Actions are being taken concerning sports that are co-op or non-Big East sponsored sports that are going to undermine the ability of those sports to exist.” He said it seems “designed rather than accidental.” Horneck went on to again use the term “actions” in stating, “I’ve got a serious problem with the fact that actions are being taken in the background to undermine the success of co-op sports and non-Big East conference sports . . .” Horneck didn’t elaborate on which actions he was referring to. The superintendent reiterated that there were no actions taken by the school administration, nor were they planning to take any actions.

Board President Bishop posed a question to the athletic director stating that she has “. . . seen it written in many places that we want to see as many students participate in Big East sports as possible,” and she feared this would eliminate the girls and boys tennis teams, which have been competitive teams for as long as she has lived in Kohler. The athletic director countered that he didn’t know if he wrote it like that, or if the president was interpreting it that way, but his question simply was, do they want to align with what the Big East currently offers? He said he wasn’t asking the school to do that, it was just for the sake of discussion. It’s unknown where the “many places” were that the board president saw these things written. Superintendent Trueblood assured everyone that tennis would be the last sport to be cancelled if those kinds of actions were ever taken since Kohler is in the unique position of having the Sports Core and very involved parents.

Athletic director Joe Hildebrand finally spoke, stating that he is all about opportunity, and he would never take away from that. He said he was all for co-ops and without them, he wouldn’t have a job, the school wouldn’t have sports, and the kids wouldn’t have the opportunities, so that rumor should be squashed.

A member of the audience asked if the public would have been informed if the board planned to take action on these issues. They were assured that there were administrative guidelines and safeguards in place that keep important decisions like eliminating sports from being decided in one fell swoop at one meeting. It would have to go through several stakeholders, and it was stated that a public hearing would need to be set. There was no mention as to whether there would be any public announcements informing the public of a public hearing beyond vague wording in an agenda (which aren’t easy to find on the school website). Superintendent Trueblood later explained to me that the vague wording in agendas is due to requirements by the Department of Instruction to use certain uniform words in agendas. Be that as it may, the lack of communicating from the school about these types of matters beyond posting agendas has had the community frustrated for quite some time.

Constituents are often told to attend meetings or contact board members with questions and concerns, rather than spreading rumors on social media. Some have been attending meetings and still had misgivings. Because the issue is with a school employee, concerned citizens are simply told it’s a “personnel issue” and can’t be discussed with the public. So they share their concerns and observations with one another in closed Facebook groups, and they are tattled on and called out by the administration and some board members for rumor-mongering on the dreaded social media.

Aside from the inaccessibility of personnel issues, sometimes the public simply feels like openness and transparency is lacking in some of the answers they receive when they do contact their leadership or representatives, or they feel like they are getting the runaround. Discussing the issues with one another in closed Facebook groups isn’t much different than the administration discussing government business in closed session. I doubt their discussions are always 100% factual and never emotional.

The Board President said at the beginning of the meeting that the whole thing was like playing the kids game “Telephone.” She said, “When you start over here and you get over there, and my God, it’s a story defies logic.”

I didn’t see or hear anything that could be described as defying logic. It seems logical to me that some parents, community members, coaches or stakeholders who want more competitive teams may be influencing the athletic director. It seems logical to me that there may be some who have never liked co-ops and would like them eliminated, or never liked all the extra nontraditional sports stealing away from the traditional ones. And it seems logical to me that an athletic director could be swayed to take little actions here and there to advance a pro-Big East conference athletic program at Kohler Schools. I’m not saying he has done this, but I would hardly describe it as “defying logic” to suggest he might have.

There have also been some contradictory statements made that leaves community members confused. At the June 17 meeting, the board president said there has not been at any point any plans to disband co-ops and everyone should go away with that idea. But in the very next breath, she said it may happen at some point, it just wasn’t the intent now.

The community was at the meeting to express their objections to the discussion happening now or in the future. They were doing what they have been told over and over again to do: attend meetings, make your voices heard, instead of just sitting on social media complaining. Among those who spoke during the public input session at the June 17 meeting were doctors and other professionals, athletic students, school volunteers, coaches, and other civic leaders. The comments from adults and students alike were very well thought out and adept. They didn’t deserve to be patronizingly portrayed as silly little children having an emotional reaction to social media rumors. (Some from the school side got just a little emotional, too. One said something they had to apologize for later. It happens and it’s not a crime).

In the “olden days” people talked about such issues over the fence, on the phone, or in the grocery store parking lots. Now it takes place on a different medium and it’s not a bad thing. Social media has become the modern-day town square, and that probably isn’t going to change any time soon. Every media organization uses Facebook to report and communicate with their audiences. Many municipal governments and police departments do as well. It has aided in the capture of criminals and helped locate missing persons and pets, as happened this past week in our area.

Social media has the added benefit of allowing people to ask questions, seek clarification, share links with more information, compare notes, and correct misinformation to a large group at once, unlike the telephone days. The Kohler groups are private, consisting mostly of residents and school choice parents, not the general public. Some “old school” civic leaders like to boast about never using Facebook, but we know they get play-by-play reports from family members or Village passenger pigeons. They are more than welcome at any time to pass along corrections or clarifications when they are made aware of misinformation and anyone of us will be happy to share it with the group. I ask them to please stop telling us to keep discussion of the community issues off Facebook, even if it’s said jokingly. This could be construed as creating a “chilling effect” on free speech rights.

Board member Horneck summed up the controversy well by pointing out that the board discussed the issues at the April 29 meeting, and now they were discussing it again, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that the constituency showed up to influence the discussion if the board and school were to ever get to the point of making a decision.

The meeting was adjourned without discussing the remainder of the items because the two meetings had taken a total of three hours and it was getting late. School agendas and minutes can be viewed at go.boarddocs.com/wi/kohler/Board.nsf/Public

 

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