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MEEKER I School board members and supporters of embattled coach Hallie Blunt confronted each other April 20 in a lengthy, sometimes heated, discussion.
When it was all over — the accusations of hidden agendas, the perceived personal attacks, the emotional appeals — nothing had changed.
“I think we’re at an impasse,” said Mary Strang, school board president. “We’re not going to try this in the public eye, at this point. I think we need to move on. There’s nothing left that will be resolved, if we keep going around.”
So, for all practical purposes, Blunt is no longer girls’ basketball coach at Meeker High School.
“After nine years of coaching, I’m done,’ Blunt said. “I guess I’ll just have to look into other options.”
Blunt was told she can reapply for her old job, but said she doesn’t plan to pursue that option.
“It’s just lip service saying I have the opportunity to reapply, but I don’t have a prayer. I have no intentions in reapplying, as I clearly don’t have a shot at it,” Blunt said. “Paul will make that decision.”
At last week’s meeting, Blunt accused board member Paul Neilson — whose daughter, a senior at MHS, played for Blunt — of having a personal agenda to get her fired.
Neilson acknowledged he has not been a supporter of renewing Blunt’s coaching contract.
“I had said I had concerns for the last three years,” Neilson said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t know I didn’t vote to renew Hallie last year. I told my concerns to Doug (Pfau, school superintendent) and he decided they were valid. I have had concerns for three years. If you think I’m hiding behind that, I’m not.”
In a prepared statement he read aloud, Blunt’s husband, Kurt, expressed his concerns about his wife’s job being undermined by some on the board.
“As I’ve observed over the last three or four years, Hallie has been able to help the young women in the program achieve great success, in spite of some fairly concentrated criticism at best, outright sabotage at worst by a few parents and relatives of players whose attitudes have had a tangible impact on the relationships of the players on those teams and their coaches,” Kurt Blunt said. “Unfortunately, I believe that some of the sources of that negative influence are members of this board, and that personal grievances are driving board decisions with regards to the girls’ basketball program, as opposed to the criteria that have historically been the measuring stick for a coach retaining his/her position.”
In a move this year, the board acted to change its policy on hiring and firing coaches, giving that authority to the superintendent. In the past, those decisions were made by the board. But under the new policy, school board members, if they have concerns about a coach, can share those with the superintendent.
“We give our concerns (to the superintendent) and he deems them valid or not valid. I don’t know what those concerns were,” board president Strang said. “We don’t vote. All we’re privy to is the confidential evaluation that went on in executive session.”
In the case of Hallie Blunt, the superintendent said he considered the concerns raised by some school board members to be valid.
“How do we know those were valid?” Jennifer Turner asked.
“This is the process we’ve agreed to and we’ve followed it,” board president Strang said.
“What the process has done has allowed you to vote in the same manner as before, but now you don’t have to do it publicly,” Hallie Blunt said.
“Do you think, Hallie, under the old process, anything would have been different?” board member Neilson said.
The girls’ basketball coach, despite being recommended for contract renewal by high school principal and athletic director George Henderson, did not have her contract renewed, as did every other high school and middle school coach.
The decision not to renew Blunt’s contract was made by first-year superintendent Pfau.
“I made that recommendation,” Pfau said. “It’s not typical for boards to hire and fire. I am, technically, their only employee.”
“So, in your opinion, which one is going to hold more weight, a board member’s or an athletic director’s?” said Coley Turner, former MHS athletic director and Blunt’s brother.
“I’m not going to answer that,” Pfau said.
Family members and supporters of Blunt, including some of her players, packed the conference room for last week’s school board meeting. A number of them questioned the board’s new policy, suggesting board members could put pressure on the superintendent to do their bidding.
“All of the other coaches went through this exact process,” Strang said.
“But you put pressure on the superintendent, right?” said Blunt’s father, Bill Turner, a former Meeker High School wrestling coach who is in the Colorado Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“She was recommended by the AD, not by Mr. Pfau,” Strang said. “Not to offer a contract, that is done at the superintendent’s discretion. I’m sorry, but this is the process.”
“So, the only real control you have is if he doesn’t fire her, you fire him?” asked County Commissioner Kai Turner, who is Blunt’s brother. “He makes the decision, but if that isn’t the one you want, then you make a decision (about the superintendent).”
“It’s a process by which concerns (about a coach) can be voiced,” Strang said. “That’s the way the process works.”
School board member Mindy Burke said she didn’t care for the new policy of hiring and firing coaches, because the process took place behind closed doors.
“No disrespect to any other board member, but I think the new process … the only thing that is different is there is no vote (recorded) in the minutes,” Burke said. “I feel like the process that was installed didn’t change anything other than voting in a public meeting. That’s the only thing I think this process changed.”
Board member Ed Coryell defended the new process.
“I don’t think the process is understood,” Coryell said. “We don’t hire coaches like we’ve done forever. … As far as these votes everybody thinks we take in a back room, there’s no vote, because we don’t vote on it anymore. It’s his call, Doug’s. It’s not the board making votes.”
Word of Hallie Blunt’s contract not being renewed was circulated, somehow, before Blunt herself knew about it.
“My parents knew two weeks ago from the Soroco coaches that Hallie was not being brought back,” said Kaleyne Turner, who is an assistant coach for the MHS girls’ basketball team. “How come my parents knew about it before Hallie heard? I don’t think that’s very professional.”
“I would like to know where that leak was, too,” board president Strang said.
“One of your board members talked to Soroco coaches,” Kaleyne Turner said.
Board member Jerry Oldland said, “I have no idea where any leaks came from or how anybody got any rumors Hallie wasn’t going to be renewed. When I left the board meeting (on April 6), I thought you (Blunt) were going to be rehired as the basketball coach. What really surprised me was that those rumors got out in the community, because that’s not what we were talking about at the board meeting.”
Ann Turner, Hallie Blunt’s mother, accused two board members of siding against having her daughter’s contract renewed.
“We all know it’s Paul (Neilson) and (Bill) de Vergie,” Ann Turner said.
“Annie, I feel like you and I have been friends for a long time,” Neilson said. “But I feel that in my position, I have two responsibilities. One, to try to do the best I can for the kids. Second, is to the taxpayers of the community. I can sleep at night feeling like I’ve done that.”
De Vergie is the newest member of the board having been elected in November. His daughter played on the MHS girls’ basketball team.
“If you’re going to bring my name up … Am I worried about my daughter not playing? No, that’s not my concern. I have personal concerns (about Hallie Blunt). I am getting a lot of comments from parents who had players in the sport,” de Vergie said. “I don’t think this is a popularity thing. I haven’t hidden behind any of my concerns. I had people ask me to bring them as a board member (to the superintendent).”
Asked why those parents didn’t come forward, de Vergie said, “They are scared to death of this community. I’m not from here. People came to me because they said we don’t want to deal with the Turners. I relayed it through the process, so that’s my perspective.”
Former school board member Ben Rogers, who was replaced by de Vergie, said the new board was stacked against Blunt.
“It was pretty much common knowledge what was going to happen (to Blunt’s position with the change on the board). The perception has been there and now it’s become reality,” Rogers said. “There are a lot of people in the community who are scared, who think it’s a good-old-boy network. I think the superintendent was scared. This process here, it’s broke. Unfortunately, we’re going to lose a good person here. I know she’s had some past, but she’s grown from it and we have one heck of a coach now. She cares about those kids and she cared about all of your kids.”
In response, de Vergie said, “If you think I came on this board to fire Hallie, you’re crazy. I’m a parent, and kids and education are my No. 1 concern. It’s not basketball.”
As part of last week’s meeting, members of the girls’ basketball team addressed the board in support of their coach.
“Our season was not about wins or losses, but about getting better,” said Elissa McLaughlin, a junior. “She (Blunt) created a passion we have never felt before. Her passion for the game and our team means more than a win or a loss. We won’t remember the wins and losses, but the lessons we have learned.”
In nine seasons, Blunt said she had a record of, approximately, 125-70, guided the Lady Cowboys to the state tournament twice, including last season, and never finished with a sub-.500 record or lower than fourth in the league.
Asked about the “issues” with Blunt that led to the decision not to renew her contract, Superintendent Pfau cited, “Consistency with skill and player development, fundamentals, the coachie thing has been brought up, playing favorites, consistency of communication with parents and just the fact it’s been nine years and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of skill development with players. Skill development is the biggest concern.”
“That’s weird, because on the skill level, I have had the league co-MVP the last two years,” Blunt said.
Blunt’s players refer to her as “coachie.”
“We refer to Coach Blunt as coachie because it refers to respect and affection,” junior player McLaughlin said.
Added senior Timbre Shriver, “He (Blunt’s father and former Meeker wrestling coach Bill Turner) was called by the exact same name. She (Blunt) should receive the respect given to all other head coaches at Meeker High School.”
A succession of players, parents of players, family members and friends expressed their support for the girls’ basketball coach at the April 20 meeting, prompting Hallie Blunt to ask, “After hearing everything you’ve heard, would you rehire me?”
Superintendent Pfau said, “I’m not going to even answer that.”