For 37 years, Steve Bertrand has been a teacher and coach at Cascade High School. By all accounts he has given of himself freely and tirelessly to both his students and his athletes, and always with a determination to do his very best for the kids.
Last month the Everett School District told Bertrand that, in effect, all that is not enough.
At a pre-Christmas meeting with school and district officials, the 59-year-old Bertrand was informed that he will not be offered a contract to return in the fall as the school’s head cross country coach, a position he has held for the past 35 years. He will be Cascade’s head track and field coach for the coming spring season, but expects to lose that position as well.
Bertrand said he was told at the pre-Christmas meeting by a district official that Everett superintendent Gary Cohn “wants to see the program go in a new direction.”
It is no overstatement to say Bertrand’s dismissal has stirred shock, disbelief and even outrage among a large group of supporters, including fellow teachers and coaches, current and former athletes, and the parents of those athletes.
“I’ve known Coach B (Bertrand) for about 14 years, and I’ve never had a person that’s impacted my life more than he has,” said Daniel Kore, a 2003 Cascade graduate who ran three years for Bertrand. “He’s not just a coach. He’s like a father figure.”
“I’m very disheartened (by the district decision),” said Leondra Weiss, a 1987 Cascade graduate who ran four years for Bertrand. “He’s done so much for me and for so many others. … All of us can speak his praises because he’s really made a difference in our lives.”
Bertrand’s influence on his students and athletes “is tough to put into words,” said Dylan Hopper, a 2010 graduate who ran under Bertrand for four years and now runs at the University of Arizona. “He taught me a lot about trying to run fast and to win races, but really everything he taught me applied more to the bigger picture of life.
“I can honestly say that out of everyone I’ve ever met in the sport (of distance running), the one person I’d want to coach me is Steve Bertrand.”
Dylan Hopper’s father, Daren Hopper, called the district decision “a very disappointing development. … I don’t know of a parent that doesn’t like Steve. I don’t know of a kid that doesn’t like Steve. He’s been a great asset to the community, and to just dismiss him is beyond imagination. It’s mind-boggling why (the district) wouldn’t want a person of his class, his beliefs and his kids-first philosophy.”
District officials would not address publicly the decision to oust Bertrand. District athletic director Robert Polk and Cascade principal Cathy Woods declined comment, citing the district’s policy with regard to personnel issues. They also would not say whether the decision was made at the district or school level.
Cohn was unavailable for comment, but Mary Waggoner, the district’s director of communications, confirmed that Bertrand “was not offered a contract (for the 2015 fall cross country season), and that’s all I’m able to say.”
Bertrand’s education career is not without blemishes. Last fall he was reprimanded for having cross country team members participate in campaigning for Mike Wilson, a Cascade teacher who was running for the state legislature. The students went into neighborhoods to knock on doors, hand out leaflets and speak on Wilson’s behalf.
“Had there not been the Mike Wilson issue, I’m fairly convinced we would not be where we are,” said Bertrand, a 1974 Cascade alum who teaches PE, music and English at the school.
Many Bertrand supporters contend the district has a grudge against Bertrand for his determined efforts to get a synthetic track installed at Cascade.
Carl Shipley, whose son Vinny Shipley ran four years of cross country and track at Cascade before his 2014 graduation, said he has no doubt “what’s happening here. This is payback for … the noise Cascade parents and (others) created trying to get the facilities at the school upgraded. I think they want to use Steve as a scapegoat.”
It is, Shipley added, “a horrible, gut-wrenching story, what they’re doing to (Bertrand). He’s dedicated his life to coaching, to his community and to his school.”
With the Wilson campaign incident and the push for the new track at Cascade, “I think I’ve come up on the radar too much,” Bertrand said.
Beyond those two incidents, Bertrand says he has no idea why the district would want him out. Unlike the removal of a teacher, where specific steps of due process must be followed, the district can remove a coach simply by not renewing his or her one-year contract.
But Bertrand’s supporters are not ready to give up. They are gathering petition signatures seeking his reinstatement, and many are expected to show up Tuesday to speak on his behalf at a 4:30 p.m. meeting of the Everett school board, scheduled for the district’s Community Resource Center, 3900 Broadway, Everett.
Bertrand is “someone who so clearly and so faithfully has worked his tail off for students and for Cascade High School,” said Rachel Zupke, an assistant cross country and girls basketball coach at Everett High School, and the president of the Everett Extracurricular Coaching Association. “He just wants to coach. He loves doing it. He loves the kids. And he loves being of service to the people of Everett.”
Even people outside of Everett are baffled by the district’s decision. Tuck Gionet, the longtime track and field coach at Snohomish High School, said he has “no idea why a guy of (Bertrand’s) character and his quality would be let go.
“Steve is very highly regarded by his fellow coaches,” Gionet said. “He sets a great standard for his student-athletes … and to hear of him being let go is a mystery.”
As for Bertrand, he remains hopeful “that we can work this out. I want to see us resolve this, put it behind us and move forward.
“If I need to make changes, I’m open to making those changes,” he said. “But I’m not ready to be done (with coaching). And I’m hoping to work this out so I can continue doing what I love to do.”