Dance coach contract not renewed as board divided

Dancers - both current and former - along with coaches and parents packed into the Aitkin High School library Monday night to discuss the issue of coach Kate Schmaltz.

In spite of numerous other cancellations and news on the coronavirus dominating the headlines Monday, March 16, the prospects regarding the Aitkin All-Starz dance team packed the Aitkin School Board meeting.

About 50 parents, coaches, dancers and former team members filled the Aitkin High School library in spite of new warnings about social distancing, and were heard as the school board ultimately decided not to renew the contract of Kate Schmaltz, three-year head coach of the All-Starz.

It was a divided board, as the vote was 5-2.

The issue had drawn much attention in the community throughout the competitive season, and the issue was bumped to the top of Monday night’s agenda due to the large number of attendees.

Before discussion began on the topic, however, Chairperson Cindi Hills asked the large crowd to remain professional.

“This is not the time for any kind of character assassination,” Hills said.

The board also asked that the two sides condense their comments to two people speaking. Speaking for Schmaltz was Lori Burgstaler, an Aitkin High School dance parent and graduate, as well as the team’s only graduating senior, Hailey Bourassa.

Both spoke to the positives Schmaltz brought to the program, including continual reassurance to the team. Burgstaler added that she felt that many of the comments made were either lies or exaggerations, and felt Schmaltz was owed an apology for the number of balls dropped during her tenure.

Bourassa read the speech she had made at the team’s season-ending banquet, saying, “Thank you for making us a better team and overcoming our weaknesses.”

On the other side, alumni parent Lisa Paulbeck spoke, as did alumni dancer Maddy Slette.

Paulbeck said, in reading a letter, that 10 of the dancers who would have been on this year’s team left the team due to a lack of respect and value, as well as mental and emotional negativity.

“The All-Starz legacy deserves better,” Paulbeck said. “The community deserves better.”

Slette added that the team had lost numerous dancers over the past two years.

“This new system is not working,” she said. “Everyone is divided.”

The All-Starz had a long run of success under former head coach Lisa Roth, including numerous state titles. When Roth retired, Schmaltz was hired to replace her - and has not produced the same results. This year, the team did not qualify for state competition.

“I hope to see this team rebuild itself,” Slette said, who graduated last year.

Other letters of support were given to board members, and two other letters were filed with the board before the meeting.

Once commentary was over, the school board brought up the issue of what was appropriate to discuss in a public meeting. Schmaltz did not have a performance review either of her two previous years, and Alex White, the new activities director, recently conducted one.

However, that review and any complaints, Hills said, should not be discussed publicly.

Board member Joe Ryan stressed that he felt he didn’t know enough about the situation, and that an “objective, fair, thorough and lawful process” was needed in removing a coach.

“I don’t know that that process has been followed all the way,” Ryan said. “It’s an internal thing. We have a process we have to follow.”

Ryan also commented that discussing personnel matters was not allowed in a public session, and felt not all board members had all the information they needed to make the decision, which board member Jeremy Janzen had also said previously.

However, Hills went on to say that board members had the responsibility to reach out and get more information as well.

“The role of the board is to ask questions,” she said. “It’s the role of the board to be asking those questions prior to a public meeting.”

After roughly 45 minutes of discussion, the vote was finally called, with Ryan and Janzen voting to retain the coach and the other five members – Hills, Dennis Hasskamp, Kevin Hoge, John Chute and Noel Bailey – voting to non-renew.

Once the dance issue was addressed and the vote taken, most of the people in attendance left the meeting.

In other actions taken Monday evening, the board:

• Accepted the resignation of girls JV tennis coach Justine Nordick and paraprofessional Andrea Griffith.

• Approved hiring Julie Nowlan as payroll specialist, Nedra Henline and Garrett Tetrick as long-term substitutes, and Heather Hipp as the district’s new business manager, effective April 13.

• Approved the sale of a district 2016 Suburban to Crosby-Ironton School in the amount of $31,000.    

• Approved the tenures of Chesna Siegford and Jessica Stifter.

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