Former Cleburne football coach Jeff Merket said he will file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the district’s treatment of him. File Star-Telegram
Former Cleburne football coach Jeff Merket said he will file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the district’s treatment of him. File Star-Telegram

High School Football

Former Cleburne football coach alleges discrimination, retaliation

Special to the Star-Telegram

March 28, 2017 3:49 PM

The former Cleburne football coach whose spirited resignation letter was the talk of the town has filed a grievance with the school district alleging discrimination and retaliation and said he will follow up by filing a charge Wednesday with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The actions occur only days after Jeff Merket disclosed that administrators confronted him with a resignation document drawn up by the district in January and what he said was an ultimatum: sign it or face a bad evaluation and non-renewal of his contract.

Earlier this month, Merket did resign, but used his own words, alleging that athletic director Mark Walker, HR director Kyle Boles and superintendent Kyle Heath employed “such malicious tactics as bullying, harassment, and retaliation” against him.

Merket provided copy of the document along with a choreographed joint statement announcing his departure, effective June 30, and his written response as to why he declined to sign.

“They called me in and told me what a great deal it was to sign, then they told me what would happen if I didn’t, which was they would proceed with a bad evaluation and non-renewal,” Merket said. “When I asked why they wanted me to sign it they wouldn’t tell me. ‘We’re not going to discuss that right now.’

“I still do not know what their official reason is. I’ve never had a bad evaluation. I haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve done my job, and pretty well at what I’m doing.”

At 27-25, Merket’s five seasons at Cleburne have been the best stretch at the school in 20 years. In his letter of resignation, Merket noted that his players had been good in the classroom, as well, citing that 98 percent of his players had passing rates during the season and 60 percent of varsity players had achieved academic all-district status over his five years.

The “Voluntary Settlement Agreement” drawn up by the district in January would have prevented Merket from making any claim of discrimination and retaliation against the district, among others.

Merket said the proposed agreement, 10 pages in length and filled with a web of legalese, made him feel like a “villain” and “criminal.”

Merket said the grievances are related to his support of Pam Lea, the district’s former athletic director who has filed a $1 million lawsuit against the district. Lea is seeking damages from alleged incidents of discrimination and retaliation, which she asserts were pivotal to her demotion. That case is slated to begin in June.

In April of 2015, Lea submitted a letter of resignation, followed by a district statement. A week later she rescinded it, saying she quit under the duress of pressure from the district. In a grievance filed with the district, she said she initially stepped aside “under threat of constructive termination” before the end of her contract.

A school district spokeswoman said the school board and the district’s attorney will retain an independent investigator to review Merket’s claims, “which we believe are completely without merit.”

The spokeswoman, Lisa Magers, said an independent investigator is in keeping with district policy.

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Heath, the superintendent, said in a prepared statement: “The issues involving Jeff Merket, which have been well documented by the district, have nothing to do with the Pam Lea case. We believe that once the independent investigator has reviewed all the facts, it will be seen that despite the litany of his complaints, the district’s issues with Mr. Merket are based on the failure of his obligations to adhere to numerous district policies including procurement procedures.”

In an interview, Merket said he was told in February of 2015 through an intermediary that a school board member suggested to Merket to “watch my back” because Heath “was after me.”

He noted two episodes in which he recalled that encounter.

One was last year during a mix-up with a sporting goods distributor.

Merket said he had the distributor quote out several supplies for the football team. He ultimately only ordered what was within his budget, he said, and only after going through the protocol of signing off the order through the athletic director’s office and the purchasing department.

The supplier sent everything that was quoted and sent a bill some months later seeking payment.

“It was a purchasing error on the part of a sporting goods distributor,” Merket said. “They took full responsibility for it.”

Yet, Merket was reprimanded by the district for the incident, he said. “They said it made the school district look bad,” he said.

He said he was called in to a meeting with the athletic director, Walker, and Boles, the human resources director.

“I felt like it was a blitz attack,” said Merket, who added that in his annual review that followed the incident he received good marks, including for purchasing and procuring supplies.

The reprimand was removed from his file after he appealed its legitimacy, he said.

Merket also alleged that efforts to make his work life uncomfortable have also compromised the learning environment of students.

Merket noted a speed camp he planned to have for his players last summer but was spurned by Walker, who he said impeded his plans with bureaucratic mandates.

The Yellow Jackets’ outside practice field went six weeks without being painted last season, a “huge damper on what we do,” Merket said, noting the team’s offense was very detail-oriented and landmark based.

Merket said he submitted 17 work orders, but was told continually that it was “under budget review.” He even suggested that he and his players could paint the field themselves if given the paint, but that was refused.

“Then we showed to a game and the parking lot is painted,” Merket said. “They had enough paint for parking lots for adults behind the stadium and the grass. They were catering to the adults instead of the kids.”

Controversy involving faculty personnel decisions has not been limited to the athletics department. Last week, a group of students at Cleburne High School skipped the last period of school to protest the reported removal of a theater teacher and resignation of an English instructor.

Merket said he has heard from a number of his former players and their families who are unwilling to speak out for him for fear of retaliation.

“A lot of them have siblings, and they’re afraid if they speak out those kids will be mistreated,” Merket said. “It’s a dictatorship here. It’s really not kid oriented.”

John Henry: JFHenry1970@gmail.com, @John_F_Henry

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