Athletics: C-I School Board splits on vote to not renew coach’s contract
Answers to student-athlete survey appear to be at root
CROSBY — Thirteen items along with sub-categories appeared on the Monday, June 27, Crosby-Ironton School District regular school board meeting agenda.
It was item 9.2, however, that forced people to have to stand outside the packed meeting room at the Crosby-Ironton High School.
Item 9.2 dealt with the contract non-renewal of Brad Hollenhorst as head volleyball and softball coach at C-I. Hollenhorst sought community support after he said he was told his contract would not be renewed over concerns arising from responses to a voluntary evaluation of student-athletes. These concerns, as characterized by Hollenhorst, related to players feeling uncomfortable when touched by the coach during practices or games.
Coaches in District No. 182 are all on one-year contracts and each year the board renews or doesn’t renew a coach's contract. On Monday, the board voted 4-2 to not renew Hollenhorst’s coaching contact. Board members Barb Neprud and Tommy Sablan voted against the motion to not renew. Neprud, a former head volleyball coach at C-I herself, said before the vote that she’d struggled with the issue since it was brought to her attention.
“I understand both sides,” Neprud said. “I also have over two decades of coaching under my belt and I know that there are times when we make mistakes. … We as coaches grow and we learn and we talk. I think in any vote that I take as a school board member I have to be comfortable with the knowledge that I have at that given time for that vote and right now I am not. I still have questions.”
Neprud didn’t elaborate on those questions following the meeting but did say, “In my gut, I don’t think that was the right decision.”
Neprud said she couldn’t elaborate on her questions because of data privacy issues. It’s because of data privacy laws that many in attendance questioned whether Hollenhorst received due process and the way in which the district handled the issue.
Hollenhorst’s contract was placed on the June 27 agenda after student evaluations were reviewed. The voluntary evaluations, implemented by first-year Activities Director Lynk Downing, consisted of 11 rating questions with ratings from 1 to 5 and one open-ended question. Thirteen volleyball players and eight softball players filled out the evaluation, according to Hollenhorst, who received copies of the evaluations.
According to a June 14 Facebook post by Hollenhorst, two of the answers on the open-ended portion of the evaluation stated players felt uncomfortable when touched by Hollenhorst at practice or during games. One of the responses said the touching was on the back and shoulders.
Hollenhorst’s end-of-season meeting with Downing was June 2.
“The conversation in that first meeting, he pointed specifically to the two open-ended responses about feeling uncomfortable and he said he had been directed to ask for my resignation,” Hollenhorst said in an interview before the board meeting. “I asked if it was specifically because of the whole evaluation or just those two responses. He said, ‘No, it was just those responses.’
“He said he advocated in a meeting with the superintendent to keep me on staff and that there were alternative options. But he was asked to ask for my resignation or that I wouldn’t be renewed.”
According to Hollenhorst’s Facebook post, he met with Downing, C-I superintendent Jamie Skjeveland and the union co-president on June 6 and Hollenhorst said he would not resign. Hollenhorst serves as the other co-president of the union.
“I told them I would not resign because I’ve done nothing wrong and that there were numerous alternatives to such a drastic and extreme reaction,” Hollenhorst wrote in his post. “The district decided to proceed.”
Hollenhorst said this is the first time he’s faced a situation like this in his coaching career.
“To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been disciplined by an activities director, superintendent or a school board before. I’ve had meetings with parent concerns, but nothing to do with this,” he said before the meeting.
“To me, these are kids voicing a concern that I was unaware of. I was certainly hopeful that I would have an opportunity to speak to them about it or make a plan to make an adjustment because this was the first time that I had heard anything.”
On June 14 — nearly two weeks before the school board meeting — Hollenhorst’s coaching positions were posted on the school website in search of applicants, along with a junior high boys basketball coach, assistant dance coach, junior high baseball and football coaches and a special education teacher. Those positions remain on the school website.
Hollenhorst will remain a teacher in the district. He taught Title I — math and reading intervention for kindergarten through third grade — last year after teaching junior high math the previous few years.
“I moved my family to this community and we embraced Crosby-Ironton,” Hollenhorst said during the pre-meeting interview. “I’ve tried to do my best as a teacher and community member. You feel like you’ve given everything to it and once in a while you get some gratification from people and co-workers and athletes that have moved on, but right now it feels pretty lonely. I feel like the administration and the board and people in those positions of power don’t have my back or aren’t overly supportive. I guess I just was hoping for more from them.”
Hollenhorst has been the head volleyball and softball coach for the past eight seasons. He was previously at Long Prairie-Grey Eagle as the head volleyball coach for seven seasons and was the head track and field coach.
Hollenhorst was hired at C-I in the spring of 2014 as a teacher and volleyball coach, but then-Activities Director Tim Tungseth persuaded Hollenhorst to also take the open softball position.
“He came with glowing recommendations,” Tungseth said during a phone interview. “Let alone finding someone to come into a new district and take over a program, finding someone who has varsity level head coaching experience is very difficult and Brad had it. He experienced considerable success at his previous job. Finding someone who had success to come in was a real win for the district.”
Tungseth worked with Hollenhorst for two seasons before moving to a different district. He now is the activities director at Pine River-Backus. In those two years, Tungseth said he never had issues with Hollenhorst.
“No,” Tungseth said. “Not at all. He’s a great high-character person.”
That appeared to be the feeling of most of those who spoke at the board meeting. Student-athletes Lilly Young and Brooke Johnson along with eight of their teammates spoke on behalf of Hollenhorst.
“We are here on behalf of the athletes that are here and not here that we all feel comfortable around our coach and we all agree these measures are way too extreme,” Young said.
Eric Hjelden drove from Willmar in support of Hollenhorst, who did not speak on his own behalf at the meeting.
“I’ve been a teacher and a coach for 16 years and a lot of that time was spent teaching and coaching alongside Mr. Hollenhorst,” Hjelden said. “Through all my teaching and coaching with Brad never once did I see anything inappropriate. He’s always been nothing but professional.”
Former athletes, community members and even Hollenhorst’s wife Anita Hollenhorst spoke. Many said they were concerned about the process and lack of communication from the administration and school board members.
C-I head girls tennis coach Ann Silgen said: “I’m just dismayed at how this decision was made or more confused as to why this decision was made. As another coach, I have some problems with the issue, or perception, of making an athlete feel uncomfortable. I think if that’s the threshold I’m probably guilty as well.”
Clayton Lang, an elementary physical education teacher at C-I said: “I know there are always two sides to every story, but why I’m here is to support a due process type thing. And maybe there was and I’m not aware of that. I think if there is some sort of formal investigation where we are talking to both the coach and the student so we can find out more of what happened, that protects a lot of people. It protects the coach from people making false accusations, but it also protects the kids from a coach who is indeed doing something wrong.”
School Board Chair Mike Domin said there was a process and the board made the right decision.
“I do think we followed the process,” Domin said following the meeting. “There’s always going to be disagreement, but I think when the administration does recommend, we can question the process and go on the recommendation, or you don’t have to. I do believe there is a process.”
Following the vote, which was part of a larger eight-point agenda item that included the setting of substitute and other employee wage rates for the 2022-23 school year, the packed meeting room emptied with verbal displeasure.
Former board member Abby Goetz, who found out she will be the new community education coordinator within the personnel-related decisions of the board, commented before and after the vote and said she believes the board made the right decision.
The next moves for Hollenhorst are limited.
“I don’t have a lot of options,” Hollenhorst said before the meeting. “There is a state statute that makes them have to go through some steps to non-renew me. I have 10 days to ask for the reason. They can say just about anything. From there I have the opportunity for one more meeting.”
Last year, Hollenhorst’s daughter was on both his volleyball and softball teams. His volleyball assistant coaches were Molly McDonald, Allison Anderson and Megan Syrstad. His assistant softball coaches were McDonald, Anderson, James Fort and Minnie Fisher.
Hollenhorst ended his Facebook post with this:
“In an hour, I'll volunteer my time to coach 20-40 elementary school girls so that our softball program continues to thrive and operate its summer programming,” Hollenhorst wrote. “Why? Because that’s what you do when you’re committed to seeing kids enjoy sports. Now think about the reason I’m being non-renewed and that the district is still ‘allowing’ me to coach youth sports. The irony is not lost on me.
“Coaching is a core part of my identity. I’d like to write the end of this chapter instead of having someone else burn the whole book.”
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.