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Contract in question for Esko boys basketball coach

Esko coaches Mike Devney (left) and Shane Deadrick give instructions during a timeout in the January MLK Classic game vs. Annandale. The Eskomos defeated Annandale 62-59. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal

Mike Devney could be out as Esko boys basketball coach after 18 seasons at the school, sources told the News Tribune on Friday.

According to the sources, who requested anonymity, Devney met twice last week with Esko athletic director Chad Stoskopf, who told the coach he would recommend nonrenewal of Devney's contract at the school board meeting Tuesday.

However, Esko Superintendent Aaron Fischer said Tuesday that Devney’s contract wasn’t on the pre-agenda he sent out last week and it wasn’t on the agenda for Tuesday’s Esko School Board meeting. When asked about Devney’s status, Fischer said he couldn’t comment on personnel matters.

“If someone is going to be on [a school board] agenda, I would inform them in advance,” Fischer said in a phone interview with the Pine Journal.

Citizens are not limited by the agenda regarding subject matter, Fischer said, explaining that there is an open forum toward the end of the each board meeting.

“Although there are some time limits, anyone can talk about anything during the open forum,” Fischer said, adding that the 6 p.m. Tuesday board meeting could be moved to the school library if a number of residents show up for the meeting.

Reached by phone Friday night, Devney refused to comment on the matter. Stoskopf did not return a call from the News Tribune seeking comment.

Sources say the nonrenewal comes after a small group of parents expressed their dissatisfaction over playing time to Stoskopf. The AD and coach reportedly met for the first time April 17, during which Stoskopf notified Devney of at least two other issues. The two supposedly reconvened Friday, April 21, when Stoskopf reiterated his decision.

One of the issues stemmed from the Eskomos' midseason road trip for games against St. Cloud Cathedral and Perham. After a 69-68 loss to the Crusaders on Jan. 20, Devney allegedly was spotted having a beer with his dinner at the hotel restaurant, after ensuring his players were fed and in their rooms for the night.

Another concern arose from a postseason survey the athletic department conducted among parents, sources said. Devney reportedly disagreed with parents being able to evaluate his coaching anonymously, with no chance to defend himself. He shared his feelings with other coaches at Esko, which sources said Stoskopf characterized as an act of insubordination.

High school coaches in Minnesota are at-will employees who work on one-year contracts that are reviewed annually. In the case of non-renewal, a coach can request the rationale, and school boards have 10 days to respond in writing. Coaches then have a chance at rebuttal, at a board meeting to be open or closed at the coach's discretion.

Under Devney, Esko has qualified for five state tournaments, winning the Class AA championship in 2014. Before taking over the Eskomos, he was at Carlton for five years and led the Bulldogs to a second-place Class A finish in 1998, and third place in 1999.

Devney, a marketing and economics teacher at Duluth Denfeld, has 474 career victories in 23 seasons.

This past winter, Esko's streak of four consecutive Section 7AA titles was ended in the finals by eventual state runner-up Crosby-Ironton. Not long after, a group "spearheaded by one set of parents," according to a source, initiated a petition seeking Devney's ouster.

The same source says barring anything unforeseen, the Esko School Board is likely to go along with Stoskopf's recommendation of nonrenewal.

In 2013, a state statute was adopted that states "parent complaints must not be the sole reason for a board not to renew a coaching contract." That legislation, however, has proven difficult to enforce.

Last May, Minnesota State High School League associate director Kevin Merkle told the News Tribune: "It's there in principle, but you can always find another reason. There's kind of a way around it."