School board gives coach the boot
Mike Johnson has seen his fair share of hard hits as a high school football coach, but it’s unlikely any had the impact of the one he took Wednesday morning.
Johnson, the football and girls basketball coach at Grand Valley High School, found out the Garfield County District 16 School Board voted Tuesday evening not to renew his coaching contract for next year in either sport.
“I had no clue,” said Johnson when asked if he knew his coaching status was up for debate at Tuesday’s board meeting. “Both programs I’ve been involved in have improved since I’ve been here and I was just really shocked to hear it.”
Johnson wasn’t alone in the surprise.
The decision shocked parents, students, athletic director Jeff Bradley and at least one board member. The fallout has already begun to take form as accusations of small-town politics have risen in Parachute, along with talk of players not participating in football without Johnson and other coaches resigning in protest of the contract nonrenewal.
“The students are pretty mad about it and the community is in an uproar,” said Paul Harvey, an assistant coach with the football and boys basketball teams.
“Just for me personally, if this continues to happen it makes you not want to coach here,” Harvey added.
And further muddying the issue is that the only people who know the reason for the nonrenewal of the popular coach aren’t talking about it because it’s a personnel matter. The decision came in a closed-door session.
“They didn’t give me a reason,” Johnson said, “and they don’t have to give me a reason.”
What is known is that Johnson had the support of his immediate superior, athletic director Jeff Bradley. Bradley recommended to the board that his contract be renewed for both coaching positions. Also, Johnson’s teaching contract was renewed for a fourth year and he was taken off the probationary status that all teachers are on for the first few years in the job.
“My recommendation was clear from the start,” Bradley said.
“This is his third year teaching and coaching and this was his most successful,” he added. “The girls basketball team was an overtime away from going to the state tournament. He’s turned the programs around and he’s enthusiastic and young and enjoys putting in the offseason time.”
The Grand Valley High School football team was 0-9 three years ago, 2-7 the next season and finished 4-5 last season.
“We’re definitely there in girls basketball and I expect us to be very successful next year,” Johnson said. “In football I think we’ll be pretty solid for the next few years. We’ve got a good, class-act program and I believe in running a class program that benefits the kids. Sooner or later the wins are going to come.
“I want to be part of the community and I feel I’ve earned it.”
School Board president Ron Palmer said team records weren’t an issue, and “were never even discussed.”
While it’s not common practice to go against the recommendation of the superior administrator when looking into the annual renewal of contracts for teachers and coaches, Palmer said it has happened “a couple of times” during his six years on the board.
And even though he is one of the few people who knows the reasons behind the nonrenewal, Palmer also expressed frustration in the system that he said gags board members when it comes to shedding light on personnel issues.
“These are the times when it’s hard because we want to tell people our reasons, but with the executive session and personnel stuff we can’t say anything,” Palmer said. “Our hands are tied.”
The board could get the chance to defend its position in the near future. Johnson, who said he would prefer a public meeting in which to defend himself, is on the agenda for the next scheduled board meeting on May 13, and a special session could be called before that.
“I just don’t think the people who made the decision have the understanding of how the community feels,” Johnson said. “I feel I have great community support with the parents and kids and that’s what’s important. I believe in this school district and I want to stay, I really do. I want to get through this and move on.”
Johnson isn’t without support on the five-member board. Treasurer Dani Christensen had two children playing for Johnson this year and voted in favor of renewing his contract. She is the only board member who has children who played on a team coached by Johnson and also the only one who interacted with the coach on a regular basis, Johnson said.
“I just think Mike’s done a great job. The phone calls I’ve gotten and people I’ve talked to feel the same way,” said Christensen. “I’m hoping that maybe we can work something out, because he does care a lot about the kids.”
Palmer seems open to revisiting Johnson’s status.
“It’s always a possibility when he comes in and makes his case,” said Palmer, on whether Johnson could be reinstated. “I think we have an excellent board that is committed to what’s best for the kids and I think our board does a good job of listening to what’s best for the community.”
And the community of Parachute may demand answers to why the coach won’t be on the field or court next season.
“I think he’s a great guy and a great coach and I would like to know what is behind this,” said Janet Hirneisen, whose daughter, Jenni, played basketball for Grand Valley the last four years.
Hirneisen is among what is expected to be a large group of parents, current players and former players who will attend a meeting tonight at 6:30 at the Outlaw Restaurant to support Johnson and decide what the next step should be in bringing to light the reasons behind Johnson’s dismissal.
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Area prep basketball teams begin their 2019-20 campaigns with tournament action both home and away this weekend.