Track coach’s firing latest shake-up in Healdsburg High sports
By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Former athletic director Jenean Bingham saw what she considered a disturbing pattern at Healdsburg High School over the past couple of years, with a number of successful coaches either leaving the school on their own or being fired by the administration.
Bingham wasn’t entirely prepared for what came next — her own termination as track and field coach on Sept.7.
That move brought a wave of shock and outrage at a Healdsburg Unified School District board meeting on Sept.9. As first reported on patch.com, so many of Bingham’s supporters stood up to speak at the meeting that the school board waived the usual time limit for public comments, listening for more than an hour to testimonials on her behalf.
Those endorsements continue.
“She’s outstanding at everything,” former Healdsburg baseball coach Mark Domenichelli said by phone. “She’s an outstanding athletic director, coach and mom. I worked with Jenean for eight years. What’s not to say good about Jenean? She runs a professional program and the kids love her.”
To Bingham, who teaches physical education at Healdsburg Junior High, her firing represented only the latest evidence that Healdsburg High has become an unattractive, even hostile, place for a person to coach sports.
In spring of 2011, Domenichelli stepped down, later to coach at Windsor. Last April, Bingham was stripped of her athletic-director title and her track assistant, Travis Carranza, was fired. A month later, basketball coach Travis Taylor left for Windsor. (Domenichelli and Taylor still run the PE department at Healdsburg.) In June, the school fired Christine Mooney, the boys and girls tennis coach. Also last spring, revered football coach Tom Kirkpatrick announced he would retire from the position in 2012.
Then came Bingham’s dismissal as track and field coach — something of a bombshell considering how well her program had done against mostly larger schools in the Sonoma County League. The Press Democrat twice named Bingham its Redwood Empire coach of the year, most recently in 2011.
The district and the high school have largely declined comment outside of prepared statements, citing the restrictions of the California Education Code.
“Personnel issues are kept strictly confidential and, as such, I am not at liberty to divulge the factors that contributed to this change or any change in personnel,” HUSD superintendent Jeff Harding said in a press release. “That being said, all personnel changes are made with considerable forethought. We weigh many complex factors and make decisions that we believed to be in the best interest of our students.”
Healdsburg High actually fired Bingham twice as athletic director. The first time, in March of 2011, she said, principal Chris Vanden Heuvel explained that she wasn’t flexible enough, and that she was “too close to the community.” Bingham appealed the move and was reinstated five days later, largely because she hadn’t been working under a formal job description.
Bingham said it was she who eventually wrote the job description, but it didn’t protect her position.
According to Bingham, when the school decided not to renew her contract in April, Vanden Heuvel told her it was because the district needed her to teach PE full-time at the junior high. (She had been splitting time between the two campuses.) Healdsburg High, like most schools, gives priority to on-campus coaches.
Bingham reapplied for the job and, she said, was denied an interview. The school hired Brian Osborn, a social studies teacher and girls varsity basketball coach at Healdsburg, as athletic director last May. It has not hired a new track and field coach.
A day or two after Bingham’s firing, a group of eight athletes met with Vanden Heuvel to gather more information about the dismissal. It was not a satisfying meeting for junior Taylor Engelke, who said the principal “just sat there and nodded,” and didn’t take notes.
“I personally don’t know if I want to return to the program without her,” said Engelke, who won the 100-meter title in the SCL as a freshman. “She really helped me achieve. It still makes me really emotional to talk about it.”
Several sources agreed that the Greyhounds track program had become something of a soap opera recently. Two athletes mutinied against the demanding Carranza last year, refusing to compete if he remained on staff. One set of parents engaged in a two-year campaign against Bingham. They lodged a formal complaint with the school in 2010, and the father reportedly criticized the coach in front of athletes at practices and meets.
Bingham declined to name the parents, but other sources identified them as Scott and Rachelle Kozel. One of their sons, Thomas, graduated from Healdsburg in 2010 and two others, Andrew and Aidan, are in the program now.
“My take on the situation, my supposition, is that Ms. Bingham has been dismissed after a thorough review of her performance, and that the only people who know the facts are Jenean and the board and administration members who dealt with it,” Scott Kozel said. “Any details beyond that are supposition.”
Several people close to the program are convinced Rachelle Kozel wants to coach track and field at Healdsburg. She politely declined to comment.
What upsets Bingham most, she said, is not her firing after 13 years on the job, but what she perceives as a lack of institutional support for coaches at Healdsburg High — and more specifically, a disregard for the chain of command.
“It became apparent to me that people were going directly to the superintendent and the principal,” she said. “A coach and I would be called forth, and we honestly wouldn’t know what we were in there for. It leaves the coaching staff feeling unsupported.”
The high school, not surprisingly, does not agree with that assessment.
“While I cannot comment on any specific complaints, I can share that we do have several policies and procedures in place, at the site and district level, to handle complaints regarding school employees,” Vanden Heuvel wrote in an email. “… They are all designed to resolve issues at the lowest possible level — directly with the staff member. However, there are instances when, due to the serious nature of a complaint or failed attempts to resolve it directly with staff, administrators must become directly involved.”
Kirkpatrick, a math teacher at the high school for 31 years and a coach in various capacities for 35 years — including 19 seasons as varsity football coach — said the lack of backing was a factor in hastening his retirement. He spoke at the board meeting on Sept.19, an act that he described as out of character.
Kirkpatrick’s letter to the school board included this passage: “Those parents who are in the habit of raising the most dust are going to be gone when their children graduate, leaving behind the remains of once-vibrant programs.
“This pattern has become the norm at Healdsburg High School. Coaches feel unvalued and unsupported. A skeptic might look at the recent events in total and properly wonder whether there is in fact a strategy at work to purposely dismantle the athletic program, piece by piece. Because this is the net effect of recent events.”
Vanden Heuvel strongly disputed Kirkpatrick’s characterization.
“The suggestion that there is any effort to diminish the athletics program is outrageous and unfounded,” he said. “… In rare circumstances, we feel compelled to make a change in personnel when we believe it is in the best interest of our students. In our role as school leaders, we have access to confidential information not available to other members of the public or staff. However, I want to reiterate that personnel decisions are never dictated by disgruntled parents.”
Asked if she were considering legal action or a grievance against the district, Bingham replied: “I am addressing my concerns through appropriate channels.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.