After the Helena Public Schools District rang up a $12,650 attorney bill for investigating a complaint filed against Capital High School girls soccer coach Nan Brisko, a majority of the school board trustees chose to set aside the attorney’s findings at an April 27 board meeting.
Beth O’Halloran, who works for the school district’s attorney, Elizabeth “Bea” Kaleva, interviewed 38 individuals and reviewed more than 100 pages of documents and made a finding of “no misconduct” by Brisko.
However, the majority of the trustees voted to, in effect, overrule the attorney’s report and a decision by the district’s athletic director, Jim Opitz, to keep Brisko as coach.
They voted 5 to 3 to open up Brisko’s position and accept applications.
Opposing the motion were school board trustees Terry Beaver, Libby Goldes and Betsy Baur.
Board chairman Aidan Myhre and trustees Libbi Lovshin, Sarah Sullivan, Karen Goldsberry and Cherche Prezeau voted in favor.
Following the board vote, the two girls soccer assistant coaches, Lindsey Gilstrap and Alex Nyland, resigned on the spot.
Gilstrap, in a recent email to the board that was given to the Independent Record, raises questions about the precedent the board is setting by that vote and the message it is sending to student athletes about how to handle adversity and resolve conflict.
According to Myhre, the board decided to take action because a formal complaint had been filed with the superintendent’s office.
She also said, “the athletic director did nothing from the time the parents met with the the principal (Brett Zanto) in November.”
When he did follow up, “the athletic director said he would only meet with them individually,” Myhre said. “There’s no school requirement that states we have to meet individually.”
Both Zanto and Opitz, in follow-up phone interviews with the IR, say they did follow through on parents’ complaints, meeting with parents, reviewing letters of complaint and meeting with Brisko.
They reviewed Brisko’s performance, made specific recommendations for changes and then gave her the nod several months ago to proceed as coach this fall.
Zanto and Opitz both say it is standard school district practice to not meet with a group of parents who want to complain about a staff member in order to protect personnel and player confidentiality issues.
“I wasn’t comfortable with that,” said Opitz of a group meeting. “It would not have been a confidential situation with a group of parents talking about other people’s kids.
“I scheduled meetings with individuals and they canceled those.” he said.
The parents also asked Superintendent Kent Kultgen for a group meeting, who likewise told them the district conducts individual meetings to hear complaints regarding personnel issues.
Although the parents initially agreed to individual interviews with Opitz and Zanto, the pair said the parents all called back and canceled their appointments.
The parents then took their complaints to the board.
The Independent Record has requested copies of redacted letters written by the parents and players, both in complaint and support of Brisko, but none of these have been provided by Kaleva’s office.
Some documents released
On May 5, the Helena School District’s attorney released just a few pieces of the paperwork the IR requested on April 29 -- a copy of the formal complaint against Brisko, a redacted copy of the attorney’s investigative report and a letter by Kultgen to parents of the CHS soccer team following the completion of the investigation. See this story online at helenair.com for copies of these documents.
At the April 27 special board meeting, public comments supporting and opposing the motion to open up Brisko’s coaching position were tied, with 17 students and parents in favor and 17 opposed.
Brief recap of allegations and findings
According to the Jan. 31 formal complaint signed by 17 parents, a group of them met with Zanto on Nov. 20, 2015. Opitz was out of town, so Zanto took notes to pass along to him.
“The parents were unified in their concerns and all requested that the contract of the current head coach not be renewed,” the complaint states.
The complaint letter denies that “this was all about playing time.”
In their complaint, the parents allege that Brisko “has engaged in bullying and intimidating conduct.”
However, investigator O’Halloran wrote that “many of the complaints leveled ... related to Brisko’s coaching decisions, which were made in conjunction with Gilstrap and Nyland.”
O’Halloran states that Brisko, Nyland and Gilstrap made joint decisions “regarding playing time, starting positions and the award of position.”
Her report further states: “There is insufficient information to substantiate any suggestion that playing time, starting status or positions awarded were made for inappropriate or unjustifiable reasons.”
She also found no evidence of retaliation.
An allegation against Brisko regarding manipulating the nomination of a certain player for All-State honors was also found to be unsubstantiated.
Similar allegations were made against Brisko regarding not granting “honorable mention” awards to certain players. The awards were the result of an erroneous email, and O’Halloran found that Brisko had not acted improperly.
Brisko and her coaches “disputed” the honorable mention awards on principle, finding them equivalent to “participation ribbons,” O’Halloran wrote.
O’Halloran also wrote that an allegation that Zanto and Opitz had “failed to properly vet Brisko when considering her for the head soccer position” was unsubstantiated.
“The evaluation notes indicate acceptable performance in all areas,” the attorney’s report reads, and also Brisko’s responsiveness “regarding being more positive.”
Opitz said last week that he had gone over all the parents complaints with Brisko. “The concerns were addressed.”
“She was a first year coach who followed a legend,” he said. “He had been there 20 years and won nine state championships.”
Some parents also made “patently false” allegations that Brisko had been “fired” or disciplined by the Helena Youth Soccer Association, O’Halloran wrote. No disciplinary action had ever been taken against Brisko by HYSA.
Brisko required that players “approach her personally with concerns,” wrote O’Halloran.
However, few parents encouraged their daughters to do so, O’Halloran writes. Those players who did speak to her directly “reported satisfaction with her responses.”
Some players were upset that Brisko used players’ mistakes as a focus in her team teaching, however other players said they found this approach useful.
In fact, Gilstrap said in a May 12 interview that looking at mistakes were part of analyzing game films, which coaches and team members watched together and discussed, so they could all learn from their mistakes.
“(T)he majority of varsity players viewed Brisko’s coaching in generally negative terms,” the report concludes. However, “the allegation that Brisko harassed, intimidated or bullied the varsity players cannot be substantiated.”
The complaining parents and players never spoke directly to Brisko about her coaching style or to the administration during the regular season, the report states.
Those players who did speak directly to her about playing time or position placement reported they were satisfied.
“Brisko’s lack of self-awareness regarding the effect of her direct nature does not equate to an intent to demean or harm students,” O’Halloran wrote.
The investigation also found no evidence of failing to discipline several players about alleged use of drugs and/or alcohol because there was no direct evidence of such an incident.
O’Halloran also found no evidence of name calling or profanity by Brisko.
Brisko’s refusal to discuss players’ playing time, starting status and position placement with parents was understood by them to be “a lack of desire to hear from parents at all,” she wrote.
The report concludes Brisko should be trained in effective communication with high school players, and that parents should raise concerns when issues arise during the soccer season, rather than afterward when “it was too late to effect necessary counseling with Brisko.”
“This was a powerful female coaching staff,” said Gilstrap of the CHS trio. All of them had extensive coaching experience and two had played on college level NCAA Division I and II teams.
Two and often all three members of the coaching staff met with team members five days a week throughout the summer, said Gilstrap. They focused on player conditioning and having players in small games so there was a lot of “touching the ball.”
Staff did all of the summer training as volunteers, she said.
Gilstrap had no choice but to resign, she said. “For me, it was the moral and ethical implications. I was incredibly disturbed about the precedent and the message it sends to student-athletes.”
At the April 27 board meeting, it was stated this was a breakdown of the whole process, Gilstrap said, so “why did we make Nan Brisko the martyr?”
“This could have been solved at the player/coach level, or at the parent/coach level.”
Opitz, who has been the Helena School District athletic director for the past 22 years, said following the April 27 board meeting that this type of situation had not happened in all the years that he’s been AD. Nor could he recall it happening in the 40 years he’s been in the district.
“I just feel people didn’t get their way through our process so they took another route,” he said. “And it’s the first time.”
One of the reasons the parents successfully circumvented the process is because several complaining parents have friendships with board members, wrote several IR online commenters.
Online and email accusations were particularly leveled at board chairman Myhre, who is longtime friends with the Baker family -- leading complainants against Brisko.
“I am friends with Mark Baker,” Myhre said in a recent phone interview. “I am friends with the Walkers who took a very different position. ... I can ... find friendly connections on both sides, including her attorney. It’s a small community ... and I have friends on both sides of the issue. ... I don’t have any bias here. (I looked at) what’s fair and in the best interest of the students. I’m not going to deny my friendships.”