Dispute over Cascade coach has some parents distrustful

EVERETT — Coach Steve Bertrand may be returning to the track at Cascade High School next year, but in some parents’ eyes, the damage has been done.

A few parents took to the podium at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Everett School Board to warn the board that there will be ramifications next year when the district is expected to put another bond issue on the ballot.

“If you’re going to pass the next needed bond or to retain your seats, you need to start rebuilding trust now,” said Ian Boswell, president of the parent-teacher booster group, Bruin Community Parents.

In 2014, the school district tried and failed twice to get voter approval for a $259 million bond issue to build a new high school, a new elementary school and make other improvements in the district.

The district’s handling of Bertrand’s case, Boswell said, has made him and other parents angry. It added to mistrust he said they already felt toward the district for the previous bond measures and the new $28.3 million district administration building.

“You are turning positive taxpaying parents into ‘absolutely no’ voters,” Boswell said.

Everett Public Schools issued a press release late Friday that said Bertrand would return to the Cascade cross-country team as assistant coach.

That followed weeks of protest after Bertrand was notified shortly before Christmas his contract would not be renewed for the 2015-2016 school year. Bertrand held the coaching position for 35 years. His teaching position at the school was never at stake.

His removal as coach came after he encouraged track students to promote the legislative campaign of fellow Cascade teacher Mike Wilson, although the district has declined to give the reason for Bertrand’s removal, citing confidentiality of personnel decisions.

“Any personnel issue or student issue that impacts people raises questions because of the obligation and responsibility we have to maintain confidentiality,” district spokeswoman Mary Waggoner said.

But it also wasn’t the first time Bertrand had gotten into trouble with the district. A cross-country team-building exercise he led on Mount Dickerman in 1991 led to the deaths of two students.

The students, Erin Montgomery and Christian Isaacson, asked to remain behind in a meadow, then later became lost and fell off a cliff. The families of the students were paid $1.65 million, which came from the district’s insurance pool.

About 100 parents protested Bertrand’s removal at the board’s Jan. 13 meeting. But even with Bertrand back with the team, parents say they are still looking for answers.

“All the people who worked hard for Steve’s return — all of the people — did it for the right reason,” said Mike Therrell, a retired Cascade teacher. “We are not troublemakers, we are problem solvers.”

Therrell suggested the board assemble a panel to interview teachers about the incident to get answers. The panel should not have any district administrators involved, he said.

Carl Shipley, whose daughter runs on the Cascade team, went further, calling on the board to hold a vote of no confidence in Superintendent Gary Cohn and not renew his contract when it comes up for review in the spring.

“The truth is, Gary Cohn is the face of this district, and this district is faltering,” Shipley said.

“As a parent, community member, voter and taxpayer, I promise to make it my priority to help everyone understand that no bond should pass while Gary Cohn remains in control of our tax money in this district,” Shipley said.

Rebuilding trust among the community may take some time.

School Board President Pam LeSesne said that she and the other board members have to keep what’s best for the students in mind with every action they take, and that also extends to actions that involve personnel.

“Just as we do the best we can for our students, our staff and our teachers are looking to see are we honoring that privacy agreement we have with them,” LeSesne said.

It’s still too early to for the board to plan out next year’s bond issue because the it’s uncertain how much money the Legislature this session will approve for education, she added.

Ultimately, a bond decision will focus on what’s best for the students, LeSesne said.

Waggoner said the district’s audits show that finances are well managed, and rising graduation rates and achievement scores reflect the district’s drive to improve student learning.

She welcomed more involvement in the district by parents.

“I would encourage people to come to board meetings, to look at BoardDocs,” she said, referring to web hosting service the district uses to publish agendas and documents.

“Questions we are able to answer we always answer,” Waggoner said. “That’s all part of trust.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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