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Mohrhardt’s appeal denied by board

Marie Havenga • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:25 AM

Even though the board voted 7-0 to uphold a written reprimand for a comment Mohrhardt made to the parent of a Newaygo basketball player after a January contest between the Lakers and Lions, Mohrhardt said after the appeal that he got what he asked for — the chance to be heard.

“I was a little surprised by the board’s decision, but I got what I wanted,” said Mohrhardt, who filed a lawsuit against the board on Feb. 23 to request the appeal. “They made a decision, now it’s time to go back to work. I want to thank them for hearing me, which is all I really wanted.”

Mohrhardt admitted to Spring Lake High School Principal Mike Gilchrist that he told Newaygo parent Matthew Bradley, “I am not going to kiss your butt,” after Bradley continued to demand action for what he claimed to be harassing words from Spring Lake students. The athletic director said he was only trying to protect his students and objected to Gilchrist’s reprimand being part of his permanent file.

Mohrhardt’s request for a hearing before the school board was denied in a Feb. 21 letter from Superintendent Dennis Furton. The superintendent said it was Mohrhardt’s choice of words that warranted the written reprimand, and that the context or other details were irrelevant.

Witnesses to the Jan. 24 incident told the Tribune that Bradley appeared very agitated when he approached Mohrhardt after the game. They said the Spring Lake athletic director calmly talked with Bradley for close to 10 minutes.

“He was accusing our student section of harassing him,” said Len Grimmer, who said he was clock manager at the game, and about 3 feet from the discussion between Bradley and Mohrhardt. “The guy was very persistent and getting angrier. His face was getting red. He kept demanding something be done. Cavin said he would take care of it in the morning.

“The gentleman kept carrying on,” Grimmer continued. “Cavin said, ‘I’m not going to kiss your butt. I’ll deal with it in the morning.’”

Grimmer and two other witnesses said Mohrhardt was calm throughout the incident, and that they believe his “butt” comment gave closure to the conversation and diffused what they believe could have become a dangerous situation.

Rob Pennell was the public address announcer at the game and said he saw an angry Bradley talking to Mohrhardt.

“I think Cavin handled it in a very appropriate way,” Pennell said. “I think there was nothing he could say that could satisfy this gentleman. The (butt) comment, when seen within context, is not inappropriate at all. I thought it was incredibly inappropriate that discipline would be handed down.”

After Tuesday’s board decision that upheld the discipline, several audience members said they were in disbelief.

“The facts of the situation just don’t support that,” Pennell said. “... I’m trying to think of the message they’re trying to send the school system and, for the life of me, can’t figure it out. Don’t protect our kids? Don’t do what you think is right?”

Spring Lake Board of Education President Dina Horne commended Mohrhardt for protecting the students, but said his language was not acceptable, and that was the basis of the reprimand.

“I think a lot of people were disappointed with our decision, and I get that,” Horne said. “But there wasn’t enough new information to the story that would compel the board to overturn the decision that the principal and superintendent made.

“I definitely appreciate Mr. Mohrhardt’s intent to keep an upset individual away from students,” she continued. “That was good. But the matter came down to word choice. The word choice to diffuse the situation wasn’t appropriate. The word choice was what the reprimand was all about. We agreed with the decision Mr. Gilchrist and then Mr. Furton made.”

Furton said it is not a school board’s job to “micro-manage” district leaders.

“I believe given the situation, the board made the only decision it could,” said Furton, who was not in the room during deliberations. “... This was a difficult position for them to be put in, but I’m pleased that the board decided to give Mr. Mohrhardt an opportunity to have his side of the situation heard.”

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