Tension boiled over in Orangefield this past week when school district officials began contemplating the employment contract of Athletic Director Brian Huckabay — but the chain of events that had the coach fighting for his job started long before the public spectacle began.
Talk on the street
Orangefield Independent School District Superintendent Philip Welch’s abrupt departure this month brought to light a district in turmoil. Why would a favored educator leave his post months before the end of the school year?
Welch had been a member of the school district for more than 20 years, starting as a teacher and rising to the ranks of top administrator. He saw the district through two hurricanes, was easily accessible to district employees and parents, and received consistently favorable reviews from the school board and the very vocal Orangefield community year after year.
“He really cared about the kids and this district,” longtime Orangefield resident Debbie Cormier said of Welch. “He walked the kids from their cars in the morning, and back to their cars at the end of the day – for all three campuses. Not one other superintendent here has ever done that but him. He did it so he could interact with the kids, the parents, the teachers. He was always doing things like that.”
Cormier, whose husband, Bob, was a longtime school board trustee, said she raised her children in Orangefield ISD, and now her grandchildren are currently enrolled in the district. Both Cormiers are still active in the school district.
“This is a small community and we all pull together around here,” Cormier said. “We take care of our people, make sure all the kids have Christmas presents and food to eat when they go home from school. And Philip (Welch) was always a big part of helping in that way. I’ve even seen him put up a door for a home when they went to deliver presents to a kid from the district and the home didn’t have a front door on it. They went out, bought a door and put it on. Where else is that going to happen? And how many people would be so kind?”
Cormier doesn’t feel the district will be able to find a comparable replacement for Welch very easily, but insists a new superintendent wouldn’t even be necessary if the school board hadn’t made him quit in the first place.
“They wanted him to get rid of the athletic director, and he wouldn’t do it,” a current employee of the district spoke up to say although asking for anonymity in the next breath. “I don’t want to be the next person looking for a job,” they added.
Cormier said she, too, had heard that rumor, but board members refused to comment on the allegation. Welch declined comment as well, and The Examiner has been told contractual arrangements have precluded the former superintendent from speaking on the matter. Whether the allegation was true or not, within days of Welch’s departure, the athletic director’s job was in jeopardy.
A field of speculation
Orangefield ISD Athletic Director Brian Huckabay came to the district in 2009 and has a reputation of instituting a strict disciplinary regimen for his players.“He’s not warm and fuzzy by any means,” OISD parent Teri Newell said. “But he’s not paid to be that. He’s here to teach our kids to be better athletes.”
OISD baseball player and student Luke Johnson agreed.
“He disciplines us so much I haven’t missed a day of school since I started high school,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “He expects the best from us. There isn’t one thing Coach Huckabay has asked me, or anyone else on the team, to do that wasn’t to make them better.
“He taught me strength, he taught me speed, and he taught me to never give up. We aren’t the cream of the crop here. We play teams that are bigger than us, better than us, and more athletic than us. But we do well, because he taught us to hold our own.”
But discipline is a little lighter around the OISD field now that interim Superintendent Kay Karr has put the kibosh on the famed “sled pulls” athletes were required by Coach Huckabay to perform when practices were missed. Karr made the move not long after taking over Welch’s post. Huckabay said he couldn’t comment on the move made by administration.
After stripping the program of sled pulls, at a Tuesday night meeting, some sought to also strip the program of its athletic director. Following a roughly four-hour-long special board meeting Tuesday, March 27, Huckabay’s contract as OISD athletic director was extended for an additional year. Board member Thad Angelle opposed the extension, and both Jack Smith and Susan Gunstream abstained from the vote.
Huckabay, who put his hat in the ring for a coaching gig at East Chambers in 2011, said his plans now are to stay at Orangefield ISD.
“It’s heartwarming,” Huckabay said of the 50-plus supporters who showed to the March 27 meeting, many of who were OISD athletes and parents. “It always warms your heart when people come out in support of you.”
Huckabay said the turmoil that caused board member Susan Gunstream to leave in heated haste from the Tuesday meeting and had Board President Nancy Ashworth in tears for much of the evening hadn’t spilled over into the classroom, and for that at least he’s thankful.
“We’ve got a great environment,” he said. “And we have really good kids.”
The general consensus among those gathered to support Coach Huckabay’s job Tuesday night was that the reason Huckabay drew the school board’s ire was the athletic director’s suspension of “privileged” players from the OISD athletic program for not conforming to the district’s student drug use policy. When asked why board members wanted him gone, Huckabay only smiled and shrugged.
“I’ve learned a lot during this, but I try not to speculate on certain things,” he said. “Many years ago, I decided to quit concentrating on trying to keep my job and focus on just doing my job.”
While parents, students, teachers and former board members were in attendance in support of Huckabay at Tuesday’s meeting, notably absent were all the other coaches in the athletic program. The lone assistant coach in attendance was Girls Basketball Coach Chris Jost, who was also under scrutiny at the Tuesday meeting. A parental grievance was filed against Jost asking for his removal. The board declined to remove the coach from the program.