Saturday, August 8, 2015

Update on Everett Public Schools Coach, Steve Bertrand - 10 months later

My husband, Mark, generally stays out of much of what goes on at the Everett School Board Project.  However, as a former High School athlete and runner, himself, he was deeply troubled by Coach Bertrand's dismissal given the tremendous out-pouring of support and the amazing stories (see first video) of this beloved and respected Coach. Over the last few months, he has reached out to Coach Bertrand as School Board President, Pam LeSesne invited the public to do in the second video below, in an effort to learn Steve's side of the story. The following information is the result of his personal investigation.  He also sought more information about the situation from the district in a couple of meetings with a member of the school board and Dr. Gary Cohn but, their story continues to support the district's internal investigation "findings" so, for the purposes of this blog post, we haven't included additional information from the district's point of view.  

Dear Everett School District Community Members,

Over the past few months I have become better acquainted with an example of the strong, caring teachers and leaders that can be found in Everett School District. Throughout my career in business, I have been a student of effective leadership principles, whether these are manifest in business leaders, community leaders, or others. As I have come to know Steve Bertrand, a veteran teacher at Cascade, I have found him to be an amazing example of “quiet leadership”. His focus is not on bringing attention to himself, but on teaching, encouraging and leading in a way that helps young people to realize their potential, not just as athletes, but more importantly, as strong, caring human beings and as committed members of the community. 

Steve has done all of this without trying to bring attention to himself but instead has focused on bringing attention to the amazing young people he has worked with. As a former graduate of Cascade High School, Steve has been a teacher as well as a cross country and track coach at Cascade for over 30 years, despite numerous offers to coach at the collegiate level. But he has stayed at Cascade because of his commitment to the Cascade High School community and its focus on being the “School of Pride”.

“Coach Bertrand” as he is often called formally, or “Bert” as he is called more informally by many of the students that he has coached over the years, has had an amazingly positive impact and influence on students over many decades. Though I have known of Steve Bertrand by reputation for many years, I have only come to know him personally during the last year, a period of significant challenge for Steve in which he was first dismissed as the head cross country coach, and then after significant public outrage and pressure, reinstated, but as an assistant cross country coach.

This situation stems in part from an investigative report regarding Steve’s involvement in working with Cascade student athletes to hand out flyers for the Mike Wilson campaign on October 15, 2014. The assertion of school and district leadership, as communicated in a report by Dr. Catherine Matthews, the district’s Director of Curriculum and Assessment, is that Steve’s actions violated the State Public Disclosure Guidelines associated with campaign activities. After making a public records to the district for Dr. Matthew’s report on June 22, 2015, I received an electronic copy of this document on July 9. 

Because this report is a public record, I am sharing it publicly, but wish to first give some context to help people as they read this document. As I initially reviewed this report, I was struck by how skewed either the investigation or at least the report was. An “investigation” and the resulting report should by definition be an attempt to get to a full and accurate understanding of the facts of a situation, and to fully understand the context and background to ensure that an appropriate decision can be made. As such, this type of investigation and report should by nature be even-handed and seek to represent the views of all sides. But, because this investigation was conducted by the district in defense of the district against potential legal repercussions, the investigation does not appear to have been handled in the unbiased manner an independent investigator would have utilized. Instead, it is clearly an investigation and a report that started with the hypothesis that Steve Bertrand was the guilty one, and then worked to justify this view. It is written not as a judicial report that seeks to understand, but rather as a prosecutorial document that seeks to condemn. 

Consider the following:

General Observations

  • Though the report talks about the people that were interviewed, many people with insight and details fundamental to this situation were not interviewed. For example, only one of the 14 Cascade cross country runners that was involved in the situation on October 15th was interviewed. And all of the runners have signed a statement supporting Coach Bertrand’s assertions of the situation. But these views are not represented in the report.

  • Ian Boswell and other leaders of the Bruin Community Parents were involved with the October 15th event and are intimately familiar with the details, but were not spoken to during the investigation. In fact, district administration has sought to replace Bruin Community Parents, which Steve Bertrand helped start in the 90’s, with a PTSA and has quietly encouraged PTSA supporters from the middle schools that feed into Cascade to start a group despite the fact that no one within BCP has expressed any interest in replacing the group. It appears to be punishment for the group’s support of Coach Bertrand and setting up a BCP “Steve Bertrand Scholarship” after he was dismissed. 

  • Much of the presentation of Steve Bertrand’s statements throughout this document are extremely skewed. For example, the report will at times talk about how Steve “denied” various things, suggesting that the investigation was based on accusations rather than on a desire to understand. In another spot in the report, it talks about how Steve said something “menacingly”. This is an extremely skewed presentation of Steve’s statements that are very inappropriate for an investigative report. 

  • Additionally, there are many facts of the case that Steve was not questioned about. And others that he was questioned about that would give important context and details that were not included, again, suggesting that the report was skewed to justify a pre-determined view.

  • In each case that other people are discussed—Robert Polk, Mike Wilson, Eric Hruschka, etc—in the end, the report essentially “gives them a pass”, pointing to a variety of extenuating details. For example, Robert Polk’s comments are excused because they were “in passing”. However, in each case, Steve Bertrand has not been given the benefit of the doubt.

  • The district has repeatedly stated that this is a private personnel matter that they cannot comment further on. Steve Bertrand gave permission to the district to publicly release his entire personnel file, which they have refused to do. School Board members have refused to help him resolve the situation by washing their hands of it and declaring they have no ability to change the decision. Per RCW 28A.150.230(2), the school board does have the legal right, and even the obligation, to get involved in this situation as representatives of the community. 

What are the PDC guidelines and how does this create a conflict?

  • The very title of the report is inaccurate and suggests that Steve potentially violated “rules”. The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission's document entitled "Guidelines for School Districts in Election Campaigns", provides some insight on interpreting the intent of RCW 42.17.680(2). It is important to understand that though this document does give insight on activities that are "Permitted" and "Not Permitted" by Teachers, Students and others, these are stated as “guidelines”, not “rules”.
  • Part of the challenge of this RCW is that the guidelines differ significantly for teachers and for students, and this creates the potential for conflict when teachers, as part of their responsibility in classes and extracurricular activities, help to support students. Here is the conflict:

It is not permitted for a teacher to use public resources or work time to support a candidate.
However, students may both "originate school projects for credit that promote or oppose candidates" and also "may use public resources to carry out school projects promoting or opposing ballot measures" (and implicitly, the same would apply to promoting or opposing a candidate".
So, this creates an interesting question. Though the guideline states that teachers cannot use public resources or work time for campaign activities, what happens when they are supporting kids in their efforts—be it for credit or for part of their community service efforts with an extracurricular activity? How does a teacher, coach or adviser help to support the students in doing these activities that are permissible for students, yet are not allowed for teachers?
This is relevant in this situation in that the students came up with the idea to campaign for Mike Wilson. And per the PDC guidelines, it is permissible for them to do so, even on school time and with school resources.
This differs significantly from a situation where a teacher or school staff member supported a particular candidate and then was using school time and resources to advocate for that candidate. But when it is a teacher or coach supporting students in doing what is permissible them to do, this creates a far different situation. 
Was there intent? 

  • Another important issue in any investigation of this type is to consider whether there was intent. Consequently, in the course of the investigation, it would have been wise for those conducting the investigation to look at intent, but this was not done. For example, as Steve has said, “I didn’t look at this as a political event but as a public service event.”
  • The situation did not start with Steve having the intent to support a candidate. The situation started with the students on the cross country team, fitting with their culture of “Honor, Unity and Service”, deciding to focus their community service on distributing flyers for a teacher that most of them know very well. Again, this is permissible for students within the PDC guidelines. 
  • Since students participating in campaign activities supporting a candidate can happen per PDC guidelines, both in or outside of school hours, and given that they were doing this as a cross country team, just as he has done in the past over many years, Steve Bertrand simply helped in the coordination of their service activities in keeping with his approach of “quiet leadership”.

Was there precedent? 

  • As Steve reports, and even as the Matthews report states, Steve has “conducted community service projects with his cross country athletes annually”.
  • There have been many times in the past that cross country athletes and other athletes have helped to distribute flyers for other candidates. School administrators have been aware of this activity and have never suggested that this should not be done.
  • Given that this has been done many times in the past, there was precedent for Steve’s belief that he was simply supporting a community service activity, not something that was overtly and intentionally a campaign activity.

Based on all of this, I believe that you will find as I have that:
  1. The investigation was flawed in that it was not an investigation, but rather an “interrogation” focused on justifying the district leadership’s initial opinions.
  2. Not only was the investigation flawed, but the report is even more flawed and written using an extremely unprofessional, biased approach.
  3. Consequently, all of the decisions by Dr. Cohn based on this report, including the original dismissal, and then the eventual reinstatement—which was still a demotion—were flawed and incorrect as well. As such, they do not support the needs of the community to not only to have a more appropriate view of Steve Bertrand’s work over the years, but to also have him continue to work with youth in a role that allows his impact and influence to continue, rather than relegating him to a more junior role not in keeping with his experience, nor in keeping with the actual facts of this situation.

So, why did this happen? Why was there an intent to punish Steve Bertrand?

Though there are many potential reasons for this, the most likely reasons are twofold:

  1. Steve Bertrand has sometimes given feedback to Cascade and district leadership they viewed as critical. For example, he shared concerns regarding the tracks and fields at Cascade. Additionally, he shared other concerns about programs that seemed to be administered to maximize district revenue from government programs rather than being done to benefit students. Keep in mind that this feedback was given through proper channels, direct to administration rather than sharing this feedback with teachers or complaining to parents.
  2. Steve is seen as a leader with a “quiet leadership” style, at a time where there have been significant questions by teachers, parents and the community about the leadership abilities and style of district leadership. It would be disappointing if an element of “leadership envy”, regarding Steve’s standing, impact and influence in the community were to cause decisions that are essentially punitive in nature and are contrary to the best interests of students.

My recommendations

Based on this, I recommend several simple actions:

  1. I encourage Everett School District teachers, parents, and community members, and even students, to read and understand Dr. Matthew’s report in light of its significant shortcomings.
  2. I recommend that Everett School District leadership, including the school board take the important step of redoing this investigation, and to present a report that is more representative of the context, background, and full details of this situation. This investigation will be done most effectively by an unbiased, third party with appropriate experience and a willingness to reach out to both sides. 
  3. As I have come to know many of the facts of this case, I would be surprised if this new investigative report does not put Steve Bertrand’s intent and actions in a more positive light. Consequently, I would recommend that Steve Bertrand be reinstated as the co-head coach of the Cross Country team at Cascade High School, and that district leadership issue an apology for their inappropriate and unjust treatment of this amazing public servant.

Best regards,

Mark Guymon

Please CLICK BELOW to read the Everett School District report: