Cloquet School Board Chair Gary Huard wants it known -- his vote against retaining Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey coach Dave Esse at Monday night's School Board meeting was not personal.
"I think if looks could have killed, I'd have been dead," Huard said on Tuesday, referring to some expressions he says he received from members of the public attending the meeting.
Despite being board chair, Huard did not attend the board's final closed session -- its fourth regarding Esse -- that wrapped up the evaluation process. He further said the reason he didn't attend the last meeting was also the reason he voted no: not as an indictment of Esse, but rather of the process via which the evaluation was conducted.
"I think this is still America, the good old U-S of A," Huard said. "Before we make any judgment we should hear from both sides of the discussion."
Huard said that the complainants could not speak before the board in person in closed session, though their complaints were read in written form.
But Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said both sides were heard. He said petitioners, including hockey players, were interviewed by Activities Director Tom Lenarz.
"The board asked Mr. Lenarz to investigate the allegations in the petition," Scarbrough said. "He investigated those allegations. That is part of what the board based its evaluation on. If anyone wants to file a complaint with the district on an employee, they can do that. If they file with officials or supervisors, written or verbally, we will investigate. That is how both sides of the story are heard."
"I have no animosity toward Dave Esse," Huard added. "But I am elected by the taxpayers to do something that is right. I thought I was doing something right because of the process used. Maybe that's how the system works."
In this case, the system has protections available to both sides. It protects the accused during the investigative process by keeping specific data private unless released, but also protects the accusers by keeping their names confidential unless they themselves release their names to the public.
Huard said he did not participate in the last closed session because he had heard the arguments before.
"I listened to Dave Esse a month ago and I don't have to listen to him again without hearing anything from the other side," Huard said. "If people think that's wrong, so be it. It isn't about Mr. Esse. It's about how this was handled."
Scarbrough noted that the district had received legal counsel since receiving the initial complaints, and had acted in accordance with the law.
"There was a very thorough investigation," Scarbrough said. "We considered all sides. We've been under the advice of counsel. I am absolutely confident the process was done correctly and legally."
And now that the School Board is finished with that process, the larger issue of community healing must now be considered, at least in the athletic community.
Paraphrasing my words of last month in a column on this subject, the public has inspected the hockey community's laundry basket. If that laundry has now come off the clothesline, players will still want to play and parents and fans will still want to support.
But now, things will be different, because there is no alternative. That would have been the case had the decision gone in either direction. It has been an emotional, thought-provoking process.
So how should the community proceed?
"That's a tough question to answer," Huard said. "We need to give people a chance to speak. I am telling my part of the story. If people don't like it, that's their prerogative. I represent the community and the children. Those things are very important to me."
Scarbrough says community focus could be more sharply defined.
"We have to figure out our focus on what is the most important thing," he said. "That is the well-being of our kids. Period."