East Ridge wrestling parents back Everson
No one wanted to coach the East Ridge High School wrestling team six years ago, parent Perry Rogotzke said.
The team, dwindling in numbers, had yet to win a tournament. When Matt Everson applied in 2014 at Rogotzke's request, he said, the school's wrestling community saw hope in a coach who could grow the program.
Several wrestlers and parents echoed this message at the District 833 School Board meeting Thursday, May 23, in protest of the board's decision not to renew Everson's contract. In response, district attorney Michael Waldspurger and multiple board members reiterated their reasoning for Everson's firing, emphasizing a pattern of insubordination.
"I feel confident with the decision made for a variety of reasons," said School Board member Michelle Witte. "I also want to say, no one here wants this ... . No one wants to go out of their way to not renew a coach."
While Everson and his supporters acknowledge he at times disobeyed his boss — activities director Sara Palodichuk — they maintain he did so in the wrestlers' best interest and that his actions were not accurately described to the public.
Everson said at the meeting that he chose to speak publicly to defend his character, rather than get his job back.
"The truth is that pertinent details in the allegations against me were either omitted, misstated, mischaracterized, or, frankly, concocted to fit a narrative," he said during his 20-minute speech, during which he addressed each of the points in his termination letter.
While Everson acknowledges some of the events outlined in the letter — which he made public at the April 25 School Board meeting — he says they were taken out of context. He denies others, including claims that he failed to prepare for the team's end-of-season banquet.
Waldspurger emphasized that while terminating a coaching contract does not require a reason, Palodichuk had consulted with several other administrators, as well as the human resources department. They concluded that Everson's contract should not be renewed, he said. Thirty-five pages of documents support their logic, Waldspurger said.
"The gravamen of the problem here is a failure to comply with the directives received," Waldspurger said.
School Board Chair Ron Kath said one event described in the letter stood out to him.
The night before the team's first state wrestling tournament, the coach allowed a wrestler to compete after the student repeated aloud — which Everson said was done in a questioning matter — another competitor's inappropriate comment about a security guard.
PREVIOUSLY: School Board fires East Ridge wrestling coach
"I'm sorry, that one for sure," Kath said during the board's response. "That was the one deciding event that led me to approve this and support this initiative."
"What was omitted on April 25th was that there was a punishment and teaching moment for these students," Everson had said earlier during the meeting.
After the guard told him about the situation late that night, Everson said, Everson had the students apologize. He said he then asked the guard what he considered appropriate punishment, adding that he was willing to send them home.
"'These kids are young. They made a mistake. Have fun at the state tournament and just learn from this,'" Everson said the guard told him and the students. "The amount of remorse by both kids showed me that they were regretful, apologetic, and they took accountability for their misbehavior."
Waldspurger said at the meeting that the school found out about the incident the morning of the tournament from the Minnesota State High School League, which said it had been contacted by the hotel.
"I didn't tell the East Ridge administration immediately," Everson said. "Due to the time of night and busy schedule the next morning, I decided to wait until the next day."
"Those students should never have been permitted to wrestle ... and it should not be from a third party, such as a security guard, to say whether kids are eligible to wrestle," Waldspurger said. "The matter was so significant that there was a suggestion that this district could never stay at that hotel again."
Everson said his relationship with administrators became rocky at the beginning of the school year, when a family transferred to East Ridge and wanted to play on the team.
"This set the table for retaliation resulting in the misuse of information and facts," he said.
A family had moved to Woodbury from the west metro specifically to wrestle on the East Ridge team, leaving what they called an "abusive bullying situation," Everson said. The family had filed a police report and complaint with SafeSport, and labeled their transfer as "for cause" with the MSHSL.
Several weeks into the school year, Everson said, the students were still waiting to hear whether they were eligible to wrestle. He asked Palodichuk about it.
"I was told to leave it alone," Everson said he was told: "It's at the lawyer level with the Minnesota State High School League, and there was nothing that can be done."
Everson said he felt it was necessary to go to the MSHSL for clarification. The next day the students were eligible to play on the team.
Everson met with the administration on Nov. 21 and then was formally reprimanded Dec. 7, he said.
"While one might applaud his advocacy for a family, the bottomline is the district has the right to say when it's appropriate and when it's not ... and so does the League. We did that, and he did not comply," Waldspurger said.
"The district activities director gave that directive for a number of reasons," Waldspurger continued. "Number one, the State High School League doesn't like it because it raises concerns about whether they're trying to recruit, in violation of the rules. Number two, the whole matter was in a legal process," he said, adding attorneys from MSHSL and the district were examining the situation.
When Everson received his written reprimand, Waldspurger said, someone had commented during the meeting that perhaps they could move forward from the situation.
"I do believe, frankly, it may have been possible to move forward if there were no other issues," Waldspurger said. "But there were other issues."
Parents within the tight-knit wrestling community have expressed sadness over Everson's firing and anxiety and frustration over the uncertainty that has come with it, said Katie Mueller ahead of the meeting. Mueller's eighth grade son has wrestled on the high school team the past two seasons.
Some parents have said they plan on moving out of the district, she said.
"It takes a long time to be really good ... and it takes a long time for relationships," Mueller said. "And now that Matt isn't going to be there, and families are leaving, I feel like we're starting with nothing."
This concern is shared by parents of pre-high school wrestlers, said Angie Reedy, who is on the board for the Raptors Takedown Club. The group serves as a booster club for the high school team and oversees the East Ridge Athletics Association's youth wrestling program. Representatives from the group's board served on the hiring committee for Everson and plan to be involved with the next coach, she said.
Since 2015, Reedy's second grade son has wrestled with the ERAA youth program, which had about 50 wrestlers aged pre-K through fifth grade this year. Reedy said that Everson would visit during youth practices to get to know the younger wrestlers.
"Matt would get down there at their level ... on his hands and knees and play wrestle and really teach them. He made it fun. He made them want to learn more about it. His love for it is just so obvious," she said. "It makes them want to be there."
Everson's history with wrestling stretches back to his high school days in Mitchell, S.D., where he placed each year in the state meet. He made the University of Minnesota wrestling team as a freshman, just after the team won back-to-back NCAA team championships. He took a year and a half off of school after his sophomore season to serve with the South Dakota Army National Guard, including a tour in Iraq during 2007 and 2008.
Parents at the meeting highlighted life lessons their students had learned through wrestling with Everson.
"He taught me things like teamwork," senior wrestler William Hones said at the School Board meeting. "He's one of the reasons I have such a good work ethic ... in anything I do."
"Wrestling is a sport that teaches lifelong skills and strengthens you mentally for adversity," ERAA youth coach Mike Brown said. He added Everson's firing conflicts with the district's mission statement. "You can't ignite a passion for lifelong learning when you snuff out the very thing that ignites it."
After the meeting, Brown said Everson's firing raises financial concerns for the youth program. Several parents have said they plan to leave the district, which could result in less funding for the program.
During his speech, Everson said he and his wife bought a house within the boundaries of East Ridge so that his kids could attend school there.
He and his wife have a 2-year-old with another child on the way, he later said.
"For me, it was about being part of a community. It was always about helping kids," Everson said.
At the meeting, board members expressed empathy with parents, but reiterated their decision.
"We appreciate the effort you've taken to try to represent your point of view, to support your coach and to support each other. And I feel good that you do have a strong family that will, again, make the East Ridge wrestling team and Raptors proud," Witte said.
"I hope the team does not fold," Kath said, adding his son wrestled as a high schooler. "I hope we can put this behind us and grow from it. I've seen it happen with the football program and other programs ... We can turn the page and go from there."