Helena's school board renewed the contracts of Capital High School soccer coaches Nan Brisko and Lindsey Gilstrap Tuesday.
An investigation conducted by an attorney for the school district found that both coaches violated the district's bullying prevention policy during the 2017 season by failing to report allegations of bullying. Brisko was investigated by the same attorney in 2016 after parents filed complaints, but no misconduct was found that year.
Discussion of the matter at Tuesday's meeting started with most of the board members agreeing to remove the two coach contracts from the agenda. But that position changed following a lengthy discussion and an objection from school district Superintendent Jack Copps, who later told the Independent Record he didn't believe the coaches had poor intent and recommended renewing the contracts after a conversation with the district's lawyer.
As a condition of the renewal, the coaches must agree to a memorandum of understanding that will detail what is expected of them. Some board members were expecting to see the memorandum before the vote, but Copps said it will not be drafted until a replacement is hired for retiring Athletic Director Jim Opitz.
"We're being asked to approve a conditional offer of employment when we don't know what that condition of employment is," Jeff Hindoien, a board member, said.
Copps said he was surprised the board was asking for the conditions at the meeting Tuesday night.
"We've had the entire day to cross paths," Copps said.
The board members were given a letter from an attorney representing Brisko and Gilstrap, and several board members said they hadn't received any information from the school district on the investigation. The letter from Cynthia Walker, the coaches' lawyer, disputed the allegations in the district's investigation, which found that Brisko did not communicate with or coach a complaining player. The rebuttal from Walker said Brisko avoided doing so per the player's request.
The letter also said the decision to refrain from addressing behavioral concerns cited in the district investigation was without important context.
"What was reported were a couple of rude comments made by her to other players. These complaints were properly addressed, and resolved, at the peer level by a team captain," Walker's letter states. "Neither of the coaches had any obligation to report rude comments made by a player to administration as such comments do no rise to the level of bullying, intimidation or harassment..."
The letter said the investigation did not include enough evidence to make substantiated claims and asked the district to reject the report and rehire both coaches.
While some school board members took issue with not having all the information, board member Terry Beaver suggested they didn't need it and should have let the conflict stay at the administrative level. Beaver said the conflict should have been handled between the coach and the player and the information got more distorted as it moved higher up to the administrative level and now the board.
"It just does not belong in our hands," Beaver said.
After debating whether to remove from the agenda all contracts up for renewal or just the two coaches, Copps said some of the personnel were ready to start their jobs and not voting could be a problem.
"Are you prepared now to commit to us that you are confident in the memorandum of understanding you eventually work out with Ms. Gilstrap and Ms. Brisko will mitigate the concerns that the 2017 investigation found to be substantiated?" Luke Muszkiewicz asked.
Copps answered yes.
After hearing support for the coaches from the athletic director, and a public comment period, the board voted 8-1 to approve the contracts. Board member Sanjay Talwani was the only board member to vote no.