Former Cleburne football coach Jeff Merket says he’ll continue to pursue his claims of retaliation and age discrimination against the school district. Gregg Ellman Star-Telegram archives
Former Cleburne football coach Jeff Merket says he’ll continue to pursue his claims of retaliation and age discrimination against the school district. Gregg Ellman Star-Telegram archives

High School Football

Former Cleburne football coach cries foul over investigation

By John Henry

Special to the Star-Telegram

April 19, 2017 03:22 PM

Though the Cleburne school board has accepted an independent investigator’s conclusion that she was unable to substantiate claims by the former football coach, her report isn’t expected to immediately remedy the messy divorce between the school district and former coach Jeff Merket.

Merket, who submitted a resignation letter in March with impassioned claims of discrimination, harassment and retaliation, charged Tuesday that the investigation by attorney Cynthia L. Hill was anything but an independent evaluation of his allegations and that he intended to pursue his claims in another forum.

The report “submitted to the Cleburne ISD Board of Trustees by … Cynthia L. Hill is a biased, one-sided report based on fabricated and dishonest statements made by the only individuals questioned, those accused of wrongdoing,” Merket said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

The report indeed reads like a he said-she said. The only individuals Hill said she questioned were the accused, school district administrators.

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In her report, Hill addressed each of eight allegations levied by Merket in a grievance he filed with the district last month in which he asked that an independent investigator look into his assertions.

Merket claimed that administrators retaliated against him for supporting former athletic director Pam Lea, who was demoted and has filed a $1 million lawsuit against the district, alleging age discrimination.

Merket, 52, also accused the district of discriminating against him because of age. He also said his wife’s First Amendment rights were violated when Cleburne’s principal, Le’Ann Downs, ordered that she quit posting opinions on Facebook about an alleged lack of support for the football team from administrators.

He also said he was stripped of his duties as assistant athletic director, and suffered retaliation when he declined to sign a resignation letter drawn up by the district in January.

Merket also alleged that a “Mansfield pipeline” had been established by Heath, whose previous employment was with the Mansfield school district. At least eight teachers and administrators have been hired from Mansfield, including Downs and Mark Walker, the athletic director.

The district did not respond to inquiries about the specific scope of the investigation Tuesday or why no one except administrators were questioned.

In addition to interviews, Hill said she used two audio recordings of conversations between Merket, superintendent Kyle Heath and human resources director Kyle Boles, and another between Merket, Walker and Boles.

The latter made it evident to Hill that the district did not know that Merket supported Lea until a few weeks after asking for his resignation. Merket this week said administrators were always “well aware of my close working partnership with Mrs. Lea.”

Hill also said she had in her possession Merket’s evaluations from the past three years, including 2016-17. He said again on Tuesday that he was not given an evaluation this spring. Other than stating she had them, Hill never again refers to the documents.

Hill was selected by the district’s legal counsel, Leasor Crass, to lead the investigation on behalf of the school board.

Hill is an attorney with Decker Jones in Fort Worth. One specialization she works in is employment issues, according to her bio on the company’s website, which adds that she has provided legal counsel to public and private schools, school districts, community colleges, and universities.

According to her bio, she has published work or given a presentation on the topic of “Investigation of Employee Complaints.”

Hill also reviewed three written warnings to Merket about failing to follow school district procedures regarding district expenses.

The last straw, according to the report, was an invoice submitted in February for coaching clinics, which Merket had committed the district to without following protocol.

Walker, the athletic director, “felt that this last incident illustrated a pattern of non-compliance and a belief on Coach Merket’s part that he did not have to adhere to the rules and procedures that all other head coaches are required to follow,” according to the report.

Walker considered recommending that Merket be fired. Instead, he chose to reprimand, which Merket asserts was retaliation. Merket also emphatically denies the content of the reprimand and Walker’s statements to Hill attributed to him.

That alleged incident was after the district had already asked for Merket’s resignation. It is unclear when in February the action took place. On Feb. 13, Merket told the school board he would not resign.

One person not interviewed by Hill was Merket, who asked that the board independently investigate his claims. He withdrew that request days later.

“When I learned that Ms. Hill was retained by Leasor Crass on behalf of the Board of Trustees … I knew I would not get a fair inquiry, and could have predicted the outcome before the investigation ever began,” said Merket, who also noted that Leasor Crass is based in Mansfield.

“It was in my best interest to withdraw the complaint, but the illegal actions of CISD towards my employment is far from over. I have chosen to present the facts to unbiased peers, not an authoritarian administration and tendentious school board.”

Mansfield Legacy quarterback Kendall Catalon rushed for 27 yards and 3 scores and threw for 165 yards and 4 more TDs as the Broncos dominated Cleburne 56-21. Legacy scored 35 second-quarter points in the Class 5A, Division I, bi-district game.