ASHLAND — The meeting took place in a tiny, overcrowded music room at Ashland’s Primary Building.
Ashland R-1 School Board members sat stiffly in a row of chairs behind a makeshift table in front of alphabet pictures pasted on the wall. Children learn how to sing in harmony in this room.
But on Monday, an outpouring of community support showed adults their unified outcry matters.
It was enough to give Southern Boone football coach Mike Hall his job back.
The school board, after a half-hour open forum and 4 1/2 hours of deliberation, decided by unanimous decision Monday night to renew Hall’s contract at half his past stipend and issued him a five-game suspension.
“Public opinion was definitely taken into account and played a role in this decision,” said Biff Barner, the school board president.
“Were a board that stays very close to the community and our community is very close to us.”
Hall wasn’t present when the decision was announced.
Hall, who coached Southern Boone’s first season of varsity football last year, lost the position after one of his players admitted to using alcohol in late August 2004.
Although Hall met with the player and his parents to discuss the issue and set a curfew, Hall did not inform school administration after he confirmed that the athlete had been using alcohol.
The school handbook does not explicitly require staff to report knowledge of alcohol use to administration, but Principal Johnny Thompson said it is a guideline the staff is expected to follow.
On March 7, Hall was informed that his coaching contract would not be renewed. Then, during the school board meeting on March 17, Hall’s punishment was changed to a one-year suspension.
Discussion about Hall’s firing enflamed the small town. From high school students in the cafeteria to townspeople chatting at local restaurants, everyone was talking about the coach who had lost his job.
Hall, upset about what he thought was an excessive punishment when he “was acting in the best interest of the student,” filed an appeal with the school board.
A month later, the school board agreed to reconsider Hall’s case.
The tiny room was crammed. Only 45 were provided with chairs. About that many more stood packed in the back of the room, some overflowing out the door and into the hallway.
Many of those standing in back were former football players, some trickling in wearing their baseball uniforms after Monday night’s game had finished.
Barner said the board was there to listen.
“What you’re seeing tonight is that the process we have in place does work,” Barner said. “We’re here to gather public input.”
The crowd responded.
It started with a speech by Eric Pence, head of the football booster club.
“We believe the student athletes would be excessively punished…they would be deprived of…a compassionate, caring, and skilled mentor,” he said.
Loud applause followed Pence’s request that Hall be reinstated as coach.
Nathan Armer, a junior lineman on the team, spoke next. He said when the team first heard that Hall had been fired; they were asking each other if they were going to play next year.
“Losing him would really set our program back,” Armer said. “Every current and former player said he would entrust a problem he had to Coach Hall before any other faculty member at our school.”
“If Coach Hall is terminated…Will any student ever want to bring a problem to a faculty member?”
“The obvious answer is no.”
Then Dennis Nichols, head of the Ashland Jaycees, which contributed $75,000 to Southern Boone’s football program, said the school board should, “change its mind and do the right thing.”
Statements of support from the PTA and teacher’s association followed.
Dave Gill, who coached basketball at Ashland for 25 years, said he hoped the board would look in the mirror at the mistake they’d made and correct it.
Hall’s father, Greg, and Dustin Shryock, a senior at MU who played for Hall when he coached at North Calloway, made the trip to Ashland to lend their support as well.
Shryock, a secondary education major, said Hall was a big part of the reason he wanted to go into coaching and teaching.
“It’d be a big mistake to let him go,” Shryock said.
The last comment came from senior quarterback Chris Gares.
“Kids would be deprived if they weren’t coached by this man,” he said. “I’d be saddened for them, not just for myself.”