I was alerted to a special school board meeting being held at 7 PM on Thursday February 8th down at the Mason County Eastern (MCE) schools.  Normally, I would probably be about as excited as the rest of the people that follow the Ludington Torch in what's happening in the smallest (in enrolment, not size) public school district in the county, serving the village of Custer with a population less than a real good bowling game score and several rural townships.  

But I was promised by the mother of a student athlete (we'll call her Suzie) that this would be not just a normal-special school board meeting occurring nearly two weeks before their regular monthly meeting.  Suzie was ready to throw all the board members out because of some injustice that happened to her son and wanted to meet with me for some advice earlier this week to explain a complex problem, before the special meeting was scheduled.  I had actually scheduled her for the exact same time that the meeting was to be held, so when she found out about this meeting, we just changed the venue to the school.  

We both got there early so that Suzie could give me some details and I listened closely.  At that point, I didn't know her before this week, so I didn't know whether she would be reliable or not in the information I was receiving.  Her solution of having the state come in to dissolve the MCE Board for conflicts of interest seemed overly severe, but otherwise what she related seemed sincere and believable.  Over the course of the next two hours, I found that this appeared to be the case and was able to fill in some of the gaps in the story.  

This was my first time at an MCE School Board meeting, so when I walked into the school library, my presence didn't cause much of a stir.  Superintendent Paul Shoup may have thought I was at the meeting to find out more about the Sebastian Cooper incident, but likely reconsidered that notion when Suzie and I were at the same table and quietly talking. 

The five board trustees present were situated in a horseshoe-shaped arrangement, much like Ludington's board and included President Mark Mickevich, VP Dan Bacon, Treasurer Tanya Hawke, and Trustees Curt Stewart and Corliss Gulembo IV.  Overall, the board was youngish and were parents of children actually matriculating through the school, as I would find out over the course of the meeting, because that would be part of the main issue that came up.

The agenda itself had little to indicate why the special meeting was being held, labeling the one item of discussion as 'administrative procedures' and Mickevich would indicate after gaveling the meeting to order that one of the board policies allowed for a trustee to convene such a meeting, and it took a while before we learned who it was that initiated the procedure and why.  

Rather than try to summarize all aspects of the meeting, I will give an overview, focus on some key points, and describe my impressions as an outside observer to the controversies that presented themselves.  I must start off, however, by indicating that the MCE Board meeting was the closest thing I've ever seen to being an ideal of what a local government meeting should aspire to be.  Mickevich with the implied assent of his fellow trustees, would allow for some latitude in bringing the public into the conversation with the board during and after the public comment period, and the two mothers (Suzie and 'Penny') of students who led the comments did not abuse the privilege granted.  Rather than restrict their portion of the meeting to five minutes each and ignoring them for the rest of the meeting, the board saw value in their participation and their passion on the topics at hand.

Unravelling the mysteries took almost two hours, but the basic issue was this.  'Doc' Mark Forner resigned as varsity basketball coach this last Monday (he will still serve as principal) amid the time when a controversy was brewing about player eligibility and playing time management of basketball players.  Ironically, when Forner was first hired as principal, he stated he would be able to do most anything other than be the basketball coach but filled that hole when it came open.  Superintendent Shoup, who also serves as MCE's athletic director, made a decision to allow Suzie's son to play JV ball despite his lack of eligibility under current policy. 

Shoup made the move with the consideration that the boy's grades were suffering because of his father's protracted health problems that has seen him on the brink of death.  Shoup would fully own the decision throughout the meeting, and it appears that he did it out of mercy with the hope and calculation that it would allow the student to focus on things other than what was happening with his dad and remedy his suffering academics.  

Shoup's action seems to have been paying off for both parties, the son was a more than competent cager for the JVs and Coach Forner let him have some playing time on the varsity squad.  His success did not go unnoticed by the parents of another basketball player who saw the playing time of their son diminish.  

I had seen a similar story play out six Februarys ago at Ludington.  The girls basketball team had their coach resign, he was a teacher named Matt Millspaugh who had ironically started out his teaching/coaching career at MCE decades ago.  Millspaugh would eventually divulge that the cause was too much micromanaging and interference by parents and administrators that wanted their girl to have more playing time. 

Coaches realize quickly in their career that most parents have a certain bias towards the playing abilities of their child, but it doesn't usually become an issue until parents that have a certain amount of control over your employment or status among your peers question your ability to coach by how much playing time you give their child.

In a smaller school like MCE, the chance that a player has a parent that works for the school or is on the school board expands, and playing time problems can be created more easily when these parents become so involved that when they hear of an eligibility rule being relaxed which gives their child less time on the court, they take umbrage.

And that seems to be what happened here.  The coach resigned just after the homecoming game, leaving the rational unstated early in the week, shortly thereafter a board trustee who was the mother of one of the players affected with losing playing time calls for a special meeting.  It seems she felt that Suzie, Penny, and others were blaming her for the loss of eligibility for Suzie's son and the resignation of the coach and she wanted the board to help her out.  And they seemed to have started out doing so, scheduling the special meeting at the same time the basketball teams were playing an away game.  This would keep many of the key 'players' from having a say at the meeting.  

But Suzie and Penny showed up and an incredible thing occurred; they were not just given five minutes to state their case and then remain quiet while the school board glossed over what happened on their way to adjournment, but they were looked to for more information, and the board took some time to sort through a lot of sundry material that usually is ignored by other similar public bodies.

The other four trustees and the superintendent walked the tightrope for two hours between the public and their fellow member, appearing to acknowledge that the coach's resignation did not happen in a vacuum, and that the mothers' concerns were valid.  Trustee Gulembo took great pains in fact-finding and looking for a solution that might solve all the issues.  One has to give credit to the board for not inventing a reason to go into closed session, as most public bodies would do facing similar dilemmas.  They engaged in over an hour of introspection in front of about a dozen of their electors. 

In the fourth act of all this high drama, an official fell on the sword.  Superintendent Shoup, expressing that he could not properly function as an AD and a super (being that they are two separate steps on the chain-of-command) resigned his AD job under the stipulation that the board would move to go through the process of hiring his replacement immediately.  When his replacement was found, he would abdicate that position.  The board would move to send out notice the next day as the only official act taken that night.

The rationale was logical; had there been someone else serving as athletic director there would have been some additional administrative oversight with the tweaking of the eligibility rule.  Shoup himself was the one who suggested the move and the reason why it was necessary.  An unofficial directive made during the meeting was to have a review of all the school's policies and see whether they could be improved or more capable of providing better guidance in situations like this that came up.  The school's eligibility standards are currently stricter than the MHSAA and may have led to this outcome.

After the meeting was adjourned, I talked with Suzie in the parking lot to try and better understand some of the gaps in my understanding of what was going on.  Trustee Stewart, who had remained silent over most of the meeting but seemed to have a grasp on what was going on came over and introduced himself.  He indicated an earnest willingness to get things figured out, some knowledge of the underlying situation, and some contrition as to how it all affected Suzie's family.  

When I left, I had been suitably impressed with the public service actions of Mickevich, Gulembo, Stewart and Shoup.  They all appear to be working towards making the district better and their boys basketball teams better.  And it appears that another may be working against both goals for a selfish purpose.  Maybe she deserves less playing time.

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Coming up with an answer to this problem is difficult in this situation. Maybe that's why there are rules that should be followed. I don't understand why the student was moved up to varsity if he already was on the JV team.  Was he so good that the varsity team needed his talents in order to win? If he stayed on the JV team he would still be playing ball without displacing a member of the Varsity team.

It sounds like MCE  tried to work on a fix to solve this problem while including the public and parents.  Sorry for the students father and family.

From what I heard at the meeting, there is a rule that allows a JV player to play a maximum of five quarters in a night, so they could play the whole JV game and appear in one quarter of varsity BB, or half the JV game and up to 3/4 of the varsity game in one night.  It could be very helpful to have if your roster doesn't go too deep (which can easily happen in a small district) and/or a JV player is having a great night and you want to reward him with playing time with the elders.  If I am to believe the board, the rule-relaxation did not violate MHSAA standards, but district rules nevertheless that were stricter, and likely within the superintendent's ability to waive for good reason, but probably not for the athletic director.  The problem was that Paul Shoup was both, hence the gray area and the potential for another trustee or parent to take issue with it.  The kid had been an honor role student prior to his dad being on the brink, and I'm sure that factored into a merciful choice by Shoup.  

Earlier today, MCE Board Treasurer Tanya Hawke resigned from the board and will enroll her kids in MCC Schools, according to reliable sources.  

I don't really understand how changing schools helped her (Tanya Hawke) kid.  He is now ineligible for next season and misses the remainder of this season.  MHSAA rules specifically cite instances like this as an instant disqualifier (rule H).  It seems to me she is not compassionate to the situation her son's teammate is experiencing. Instead, she was hoping her son would benefit from another kids' unfortunate situation.  If her son was the better player (on and off the court) there would be no discussion about his playing time.  Sounds like typical entitlement issues to me.   

I just learned about these MHSAA rules last week regarding changing schools and eligibility, and that they aren't absolute, since they will allow for eligibility under certain situations, such as when your parents split up.  My bet is that the parents will find a way to have their son play next basketball season at MCC, and some people at MCE will cry foul.

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