District narrows coaching search

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 28, 2003

The Austin School District is close to finding a new head high school football coach and a new activities director.

On Sunday, interviewing committees will meet with seven finalists for the positions. The names of the finalists were not released.

A selection committee of eight narrowed down the applicants for the positions to seven candidates earlier this month.

Email newsletter signup

Head football coach Steve Knox announced in December he is resigning from the head football coach position after 16 seasons. Activities Director Naomi Hatfield, who is in her fourth year at Austin, also announced her resignation in December after accepting an AD position in South Dakota.

The activities director position could be combined with the head football coach position, if the candidate selected had applied for both positions. Four of the seven candidates had done so. Two of the candidates serve in both positions where they currently work, said AHS Principal Joe Brown.

To attract higher-quality candidates to the position, the Austin School District posted a combination head football coach/activities director position, Brown said. School officials and committee members thought it might bring more candidates to Austin if they could apply for more than a coaching position, Brown said.

"It was really the commitment of the committee to recruit the best coach," Brown said.

A combined head football coach/activities director is rare in Minnesota, but common in other states, such as Texas, Brown said.

The other three candidates applied for the head coach position and a math teacher position. Three AHS math teachers are retiring at the end of this year.

The candidate-search process began in January. The district held informal meetings to discuss the direction of the football program at AHS. Community members were involved in some of those discussions with district officials.

Superintendent Corrine Johnson asked some of those same community members to be on a selection committee. The committee reviewed initial applications and narrowed them down to seven. The committee included four community members, two of which have sons in the football program, Brown, Johnson, Human Resources Director Chris Picha and school board member David Simonson.

Larger committees were put together for the interviewing process. Johnson is not on the interviewing committees, but meets with candidates separately to go over benefits and any questions they might have.

The coaching position committee is made up of six community members, including the two parents who were on the selection committee, Brown, Picha, Simonson, and two coaches. One parent, whose son is on the football team, won't be able to make it to the interview Sunday, however, because of a prior commitment, Brown said.

The activities director position will have an interviewing committee of three teachers who are either involved in sports or fine arts, Brown, Picha, Simonson and one student, a junior who is involved in sports and fine arts.

Another committee will interview for the math teacher position and will include two teachers from the math department, Brown, Picha and Simonson.

The committee drafts interview questions beforehand and only asks those questions. The committee members are reminded they cannot ask certain questions, which are illegal in an interview, such as the candidate's age, marital status or religion -- even if the interviewee brings it up, Brown said.

Austin High School has used a committee process for several years, although Johnson and Brown weren't sure how long. The district has used community members' input on the committees.

"We probably have a few more parents than normal," Johnson said of the coaching committee. "They have a knowledge of football, a knowledge of the program. They care deeply about the Packer tradition. There's a lot of experience to offer."

The community members on the coach interviewing committee have been involved in the football program, either by having children in it or playing when they were in high school. All committee community members are AHS graduates, Brown said.

Having committees as a part of the hiring process is common, school officials said. Brown said community members and school employees were on his hiring committee and at other schools he has interviewed with. Johnson said the same.

Bob Lowe, associate director of management services for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said schools in the state use the hiring system they are accustomed to and some of them include community members in the process.

Some schools in the Big 9 use interviewing committees with community members, such as Mankato West High School. Others, such as the Rochester school district, do not.

"I've been here 14 years and we've always had that format," said Sharon Euerle, athletic director at Mankato West.

Rochester Schools Athletic Director Gary Addington said the district accepts input from the community, but does not put community members on interviewing committees. He said, personally, he thinks putting parents on a committee for coaches poses a conflict of interest.

The coach might feel pressured to play the child of a parent who was on an interviewing committee, he said. The parents on the interviewing committee might become upset if their children are not played, he said.

"All of those things play into it and that's what makes it a muddy situation," Addington said.

Lowe said, however, a conflict of interest is possible anywhere in the interviewing process.

"Is there a conflict if a certain board member wants someone hired, or a school administrator if they want someone hired, or a parent if they want someone hired? I don't think you could ever find a way where there would never be the possibility of a conflict," Lowe said.

Johnson said in anything with parents involved, there's always a chance of conflict of interest.

"We never see it that way," she said.

Brown said he thinks community members would be more upset if they were not allowed any input.

"As long as I'm here, I will always make sure there's a parent representative," Brown said. "I just think it's the best way to do it."

Brown said assuming there will be a conflict of interest shows little trust in a professional coach or teacher.

"I never even thought twice about it. I cannot envision a head football coach playing favorites because someone was on his hiring committee," Brown said.

Albert Lea High School sometimes puts community members on hiring committees, depending on the situation, said Ross Williams, assistant principal.

"It's really up to the school district to put together the interviewing team to whatever they think is going to be appropriate," he said.

After the interview Sunday, the committee will decide who to recommend to the superintendent. The superintendent decides on the best candidate and takes her recommendation to the district personnel committee, which is comprised of school board members Bev Nordby, Kathy Green and Simonson.

If the personnel committee approves her recommendation, it is put on the consent agenda, which is approved at the school board meeting.

When the finalist or finalists are announced depends on how long it takes to check references, but there may be some information by the end of next week.

-- Managing Editor Dan Fields contributed to this report.

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at :mailto:cari.quam@austindailyherald.com