Tribune reporter Traci Weisenbach did a nice job covering Thursday's board meeting at USA.
Here is her report.
SEBEWAING - Thursday night’s special meeting agenda for Unionville-Sebewaing Area Schools Board of Education had one item of business - the decision regarding whether the board should discontinue the employment of Lary Houthoofd, varsity softball coach, as recommended by the school administration.
However, the 80 to 90 people in attendance sat through about 6 ½ hours of testimony on both sides of the issue, similar to a court trial. The school district’s attorney and Houthoofd’s attorney asked questions of several witnesses in an effort to bring out the facts involved in the alleged misbehaviors of Houthoofd.
In the end, the board voted unanimously to uphold the administration’s recommendation. One board member - George Eurich - did not vote because he was one of the witnesses.
For about a month, people in the community wondered why then-high school Principal George Rierson and Athletic Director Mark Gainforth told Houthoofd on May 26 they were going to recommend that his contract with the district not be renewed. During Thursday’s meeting, audience members heard why, as four main topics of concern were addressed. They included mistreatment of student athletes, unacceptable poor sportsmanship, role modeling and communication, inappropriate treatment of staff and volunteers and inappropriate fundraising activity. Examples were given under each of these allegations.
Thursday night’s special meeting in open session was at the request of Houthoofd, who had been the head varsity softball coach for six years and had coached for other USA teams for a few years prior. He could’ve had the hearing in closed session.
In his opening and closing statements to the board, the school district’s attorney, David Revore, of Thrun Law Firm, said the evidence against Houthoofd was substantial and compelling and it should lead to a board decision to not continue his employment. Revore told the board Houthoofd is an at-will employee and could be terminated for any reason, as long as it’s not illegal. He said even though Houthoofd’s track record with the varsity softball team has been impressive, there have been other coaches with impressive track records who have been dismissed. He used former Indiana University coach Bobby Knight as an example.
Revore said Houthoofd was more concerned about winning games than being a positive role model, which is a huge issue.
“Should winning be the most important thing?” Revore asked.
He said the testimony given by the administrators was solid and trustworthy, even if the administrators didn’t always personally witness the alleged incidents. He said the administrators acted properly throughout the handling of the Houthoofd matter.
Houthoofd’s attorney, Phoebe Jacob Moore, of Caro, questioned the seriousness of the allegations and the timing of how everything unfolded in the past couple of months. She said the allegations did not rise to the determination that Houthoofd’s employment should be discontinued.
“We have a personality conflict — that’s why we’re here,” she said. “There is no just, valid, compelling reason to turn this program of success upside down.”
She also pointed out Houthoofd had no idea why Gainforth and Rierson told him they weren’t going to recommend that his employment continue. He didn’t know what he did wrong until just recently, and she felt the administration was grasping at straws at the last minute to try to find reasons to let him go.
During his testimony, Houthoofd said during the spring, he talked with Assistant Athletic Director Isaiah Gainforth and asked if there were any issues that he should be aware of regarding his coaching. He said he was told there were no issues.
“Then, a week and half later, I had the meeting with (Rierson and Mark Gainforth),” Houthoofd said, referring to the May 26 meeting. “I was given very vague reasons — bullying was mentioned.”
During questioning of the school witnesses, Moore pointed out that the testimony was simply hearsay and there was no written documentation about the various alleged wrongdoings. She said it appears these previous events only became an issue this spring, when the administrators were trying to find reasons to fire Houthoofd.
Moore, who provided the board with several support letters concerning Houthoofd, said she believes Houthoofd was treated differently than another coach, such as a football coach, would be treated. She said others in the athletic department have shown unsportsmanlike conduct, but nothing is done about that.
Revore reminded the board about policies regarding proper sportsmanship and conduct for coaches, and how the administration believed Houthoofd violated those policies. Moore also reminded the board of policies regarding annual evaluations, which were not done for Houthoofd, and a conflict of interest clause that she believed Eurich violated. She urged the board to follow its own policies.
Both attorneys also mentioned a written reprimand given to Houthoofd in February 2010 concerning the running up of scores. Revore said the reprimand, which stated Houthoofd showed lack of sportsmanship and insubordinate behavior, included a warning that further misconduct would lead to further discipline, up to dismissal. He said therefore Houthoofd should’ve known his job was on the line, but he still conducted himself in an unsportsmanlike manner, making bad decisions that reflected poorly on the district.
On the other hand, Moore said the February 2010 reprimand had nothing to do with the current matter at hand, and without an annual review, how was Houthoofd supposed to know what the administration wanted him to do differently. She said on that basis, the board should keep the coach, give him an evaluation and allow him an opportunity to fix issues the administration has.
On behalf of the school administration, the following witnesses took the stand: former Superintendent Dr. Kip Walker (whose last day with the district was Thursday), Rierson, Gainforth, Eurich and former volunteer coach Ralph Hoppe, whom Houthoofd let go in early June.
Other than Houthoofd, the witnesses called by Moore included scorebook keeper Kent Bush, summer softball league organizer Sue Jo Schaus and parent Scott Schaus, who also identified himself as Houthoofd’s brother-in-law.
Gainforth and Eurich spent the most time on the stand, as they were called multiple times regarding the allegations. Gainforth talked about concerns he had received from parents about how Houthoofd was treating softball players who also wanted to participate in track. He said the girls felt intimidated by Houthoofd to make a choice and they told him their participation in track negatively affected their playing time and position on the softball team.
Gainforth said that this year Houthoofd had called him with a concern about a parent threatening him. He said he also received calls of concern from parents about Houthoofd. He said he looked into the concerns brought to him and this led to the decision to recommend that Houthoofd’s employment be discontinued.
Rierson said during the May 26 meeting with Houthoofd that he told the coach the school was looking to go in a different direction and the school had a different philosophy than Houthoofd had about coaching and sportsmanship.
“I told him he leaves people feeling like they’ve been run over or intimidated,” he said. “I told him this (behavior) might work well in his business, but not in working with students and parents.”
Testimony brought out numerous details of alleged misbehaviors (see sidebars), but Scott Schaus said he believes it all boils down to a lot of miscommunication.
“It’s a travesty,” Schaus said. “He’s now being chastised for fundraising, which the school had asked coaches to do. I’m not sure why anyone would want to fundraise for the school again after this.”
Schaus said Houthoofd’s coaching salary goes back into equipment for the softball program. He said he doubts the administration knew this.
During public comment, some former softball players and parents spoke out against Houthoofd, noting the allegations were true. They said Houthoofd doesn’t have respect for the players and many were afraid of being bullied by him.
Several people also spoke in support of Houthoofd, including his daughter, Erica. She said her father was tough on her sometimes, but she appreciated that and learned from it.
“Everyone just needs to grow up and learn to apologize to one another,” she said.
USA softball: The confrontation between Houthoofd and Eurich
SEBEWAING — Quite a bit of time was spent during Thursday’s meeting discussing an incident that occurred May 23 between Lary Houthoofd and George Eurich, who served as a volunteer softball coach and is a school board member. According to testimony, Eurich was trying to get rid of water on the softball field when Houthoofd approached him and told him to stop what he was doing. Eurich, believing he wasn’t doing anything wrong, kept on.
Eurich testified that Houthoofd yelled loudly at him, within earshot of some of the softball players. He said he felt very disrespected and that the coach’s comments were unacceptable in a school setting.
Eurich ended up leaving the field, and he said that was a very tough decision for him to make because he cared about the program. That evening, at about 10 p.m., he contacted Mark Gainforth about the situation.
Houthoofd, in his testimony, said he didn’t want Eurich to continue what he was doing because it was bringing up water and causing the field to be unsafe for the players. He said he may have raised his voice a little, but he didn’t scream. He also said there were no student athletes in the area at the time.
Scorebook keeper Kent Bush, who was a witness to the incident, said Houthoofd didn’t raise his voice very much. He said that earlier he had been raking and Houthoofd told him to stop, and he did.
Houthoofd said that after the incident he told Isaiah Gainforth about the situation, only because it seemed like Eurich was very upset about it.
Houthoofd’s attorney, Phoebe Jacob Moore, told Eurich if he didn’t stop what he was doing after Houthoofd told him to that would be insubordination. Eurich said he disagreed.
Moore asked Eurich if he spoke to other board members about the situation after it happened. Eurich said he didn’t recall if he did. The attorney then asked if he spoke to board members about it after he knew an investigation had started. Eurich said he did. Moore said this was a conflict of interest and he shouldn’t have spoken about it to the board once he knew the investigation had started.
During her questioning of Houthoofd, Moore asked if he understood what he was up against, considering that the confrontation was with a board member, and the final decision regarding his employment rests with the remainder of the board.
“Do you know what you’re facing?” she said.
Moore asked what Houthoofd would do in a situation where his softball team was losing a game and there wasn’t much time left.
“You just give it your best shot,” he said.
In addition to the Houthoofd/Eurich incident on May 23, here are some of the other allegations against Houthoofd that were addressed during Thursday night’s special board meeting, along with Houthoofd’s responses:
• Houthoofd had a former USA employee, who has a felony conviction, work as a volunteer at the Haunted Woods fundraiser in the fall of 2010 — an event that some USA students attended. It was alleged that Houthoofd knowingly put students in danger by having the former employee there.
Houthoofd said he believed the former employee had served his time and he had this person working for him in his construction business. He said the USA students were never in any harm. He also said he had spoken with the former employee’s parole officer, and the fundraiser volunteering was considered community service.
• Houthoofd mistreated student athletes by intimidating them in various ways.
“I’ve never mistreated student athletes,” he said. “I put my heart and soul into these kids. They respect me and I respect them. They work extremely hard.”
• Houthoofd knowingly used two over-age players during a 2010 summer league sanctioned tournament in Romeo.
Houthoofd, along with summer softball league organizer Sue Jo Schaus, testified the summer league tournament director allowed the two over-age players to participate, and Houthoofd had nothing to do with the decision.
• Houthoofd purposely did not present some bats for inspection by umpires, thereby making the bats illegal to use.
“All of the bats we use are legal — I’ve never used an improper bat,” Houthoofd said.
• Houthoofd fired Ralph Hoppe, a volunteer assistant coach, without informing the athletic director first, which constitutes insubordination.
Houthoofd said he believed he had good reason to let Hoppe go, because he could no longer trust him. He said Isaiah Gainforth, whom he reported directly to, never told him he couldn’t fire someone without prior authorization. He also said Mark Gainforth never told him this, either. Houthoofd also said he did not fire any junior varsity softball coaches, which also had been alleged.
• Houthoofd argued with an umpire and used profanity that included a religious element as the game was against a Lutheran school.
Houthoofd said while he may have swore at the umpire, he did not use the “F word” and he did not say anything negative about Lutherans as he is a Lutheran.