Don Mahler: X-C Coach Departs; Resignation Raises More Questions At Lebanon
Kim Sheffield laughs with a group of Lebanon girls cross country runners before a cross country meet at Storrs Pond Recreation Area, in Hanover, N.H., on September 17, 2013.
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The group of student-athletes was gathered in a tearful huddle in the school hallway. A teacher, hearing the commotion, came out of one of the classrooms to check on their well-being.
“Why are you crying?” the teacher asked.
“We just found out that Kim resigned,” one of the kids explained. “What are we going to do now?”
Running is a way of life for 47-year-old Kim Sheffield. She runs to stay physically fit and mentally clear. And for the past seven years — five as head coach — she has passed on her life lessons to her charges on the Lebanon High cross country team.
She has developed high school runners into potential collegiate competitors, helped transform ungainly harriers into competent athletes who routinely put up personal bests and given the boys and girls on her teams a foundation for a healthy lifetime.
Despite her love of the sport and for the athletes on her team, Sheffield gave it all up this month when she abruptly resigned.
“The thing that is most disturbing about this situation is that the vast majority of Kim’s athletes loved her,” said one Lebanon coach, echoing the sentiments of many in the athletic department. “For many of these kids, the season has been ruined. Any portrayal of this situation different than that would be a lie.
“The bottom line is Kim is a highly qualified, professional and well-liked coach. We were lucky to have her.”
In an Oct. 8 email obtained by the Valley News, Sheffield wrote to school Principal Nan Parsons: “Your communications with me since August 1st have made it clear that I am no longer a valued and trusted coach at Lebanon High School.
“Furthermore, the assertions you have made in letters and in meeting with me and your refusal to heed my explanations of my actions have made it abundantly clear that I can no longer coach as a professional for your athletic department.”
What is happening at Lebanon? A school with veteran coaches and championship contenders is now flailing away through a haze of discontent.
The only people talking are doing it either behind closed doors or behind the coach’s back because parents and some team coaches are afraid of reprisals. It has become a hostile working environment that one coach characterizes as “open mic night for disgruntled parents and community members in our athletic program.”
The principal’s emails to Sheffield began 10 days before the start of practice in August and continued for the next month. Parsons — in her role as acting athletic director while the school sought to fill the position — questioned the “possible legal ramifications” over Sheffield’s purported offering of the assistant coach position to a volunteer — something Sheffield vehemently denies doing.
And it went from there. In her emails, Parsons took the coach to task over such outrages as a student running with the coach at her home during the summer, girls running in sports bras and athletes wearing non-uniform Lebanon T-shirts in public.
If this were a basketball game, these incidents would be characterized as nothing more than ticky-tacky fouls. Nothing of consequence, easily explained and hardly deserving of threatening anyone’s job security. (See accompanying list of email charges that included two formal letters of concern from the principal.)
Then you begin to wonder just where do these complaints come from? How, after six years as head coach, had Sheffield managed to draw the ire of the school principal on almost a weekly basis?
“It seems she somehow got a target on her,” said a Lebanon coach who responded to questions, but asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “From then on, there was just this relentless pursuit that ended with Kim resigning.
“And it seems like it was all set in motion by just one or two families who had some issues with Kim.”
Where Sheffield was rebuked, she responded with point-by-point rebuttals that, to me at least, address Parsons’ concerns and show she was not guilty of an meaningful violations of policy. (See list).
Yet she still was met with resistance and negativity from the school administration. All this for a salary of about $2,000.
The entire situation mystified and troubled other members of the Lebanon coaching staff.
“Yes, I think the coaches are a little concerned,” said another of the four Raider coaches interviewed, who like others, did not want to be named because of concerns for their job security. “Some of this just doesn’t make any sense. If these are the issues, and they have all been answered, then why not find a way to move forward?
“If this can happen to one coach, it could happen to any one of us.”
This is just the latest in a growing list of troubles. In August, the selection process to choose a new athletic director blew up as the school board voted down the superintendent’s hand-picked selection. Out of the rubble of that action, the board demanded an overhaul in the wording for the job description while a contentious public discussion showed the deep schism within the school that put teachers and administrators on opposite sides over the failure to recognize an in-house candidate.
It’s all just a recipe for trouble for the athletic department. It put Parsons in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable role as temporary athletic director.
Thus the question then arises: Who is safe when — as has been suggested by a number of Lebanon coaches — a small number of discontented athletes and parents get the ear of an administrator?
Certainly, there are coaches and programs having a healthy fall season without administrative interference.
And, to be fair, Sheffield may have warranted a note or pre-practice visit from Parsons to address some simple problems, such as girls wearing sports bras.
But nothing seemed to warrant the heavy-handed approach that was taken.
And you’ve got to wonder why there was no apparent outreach by the administration to other veterans who might have supported the coach. Parsons would have found that coaches of all sports have always had to deal with a discontented player or parent. Whether it’s a question over playing time, contention over a starting position or just questioning a coach’s strategy — it’s part of the job. And in most cases, the AD stands behind the coach and tries to moderate any disagreement. It’s just not a healthy situation otherwise.
It’s certainly not a healthy situation at Lebanon now. Coaches speak anonymously for fear of reprisals; parents remain silent for fear of reprisals to their children, while those who have a personal agenda seem to have found a willing ear in the administration.
When contacted by email for this story, Parsons responded, “Don, I apologize, but this is a personnel matter.”
Others were able to speak to the issue.
“If this had happened to a teacher, we would have stepped in and tried to mediate some sort of resolution,” said Andrew Gamble, president of the Lebanon Education Association and longtime Raider track coach. “Again, I only saw the letter, and heard Kim’s side of things, but it appears she was treated unfairly.”
So, we ask again: What’s going on at Lebanon? How can an individual agenda be allowed to upset the balance of an entire team? Even when the overwhelming number of student-athletes as well as parents support the coach, and were devastated when she resigned?
Her peers in Lebanon were unified in their support.
“Clearly Kim was committed to her sport,” offered another longtime Lebanon coach. “Clearly she was committed to her kids.
“No one would question that.”
But the administration did. And the negative pressure finally led Sheffield to surrender the job she loved so dearly.
In an email to her team members, she wrote, “I know that I teach you to hold on in a race and endure the pain — ‘to stick it out and not quit.’ I am in the middle of the season, ‘my race.’ I thought I could get through, but it isn’t so.
“I am going to ask you to do something very difficult. I want you to block this distraction out of your mind. 3 weeks left in the season, you’ve laid the foundation physically to peak for the final races. Don’t let your hard work be wasted.”
Don Mahler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3225.