Petition leads to jumbled consent agenda for North Tama school board

Board votes 4-2 to appoint new head softball coach


What tends to be a fairly routine motion at most school board meetings – approval of the consent agenda – was anything but at the Monday, Jan. 16 meeting of the North Tama Board of Education due to a petition submitted against the hiring of the district’s new head softball coach.

The petition was submitted in the wake of last season’s head softball coach, Kodi Hillman, stepping down from the position – a position that will now see three new head coaches in as many years.

Before the meeting’s end, Madonna Merchant was appointed by the board on a 4-2 vote to be the new head softball coach for the upcoming season. Merchant was hired last season as the junior high softball coach and she is currently the junior high girls’ wrestling coach as well as a substitute for the district.

During the public forum portion of the meeting, Superintendent David Hill read aloud an email he received from a North Tama parent. The email contained a petition with 13 signatures from parents and students expressing concern with Merchant as the head coach, Hill said.

The petition specifically read, “We do not believe Madonna Merchant to be the best candidate for the high school softball program.”

Personnel appointments – of which there were four including Merchant – were then moved from the consent agenda to the regular agenda.

Following the final item on the agenda – a closed session that began just prior to 8 p.m. and ended roughly an hour later – the board re-entered open session and began to address the four personnel appointments.

Board member David Calderwood quickly moved to approve three of the new hires – Lea Ann Cuts and Alexis Burrage as paraeducators and Mike Runge as assistant high school baseball coach – which was seconded by Val Bradley.

Discussion on the matter briefly ensued with board member Doug Dvorak questioning why Merchant was being left off the motion. The three appointments were then approved 6-1 with Dvorak voting against.

Dvorak then moved to hire Merchant for the head softball coach position with Cheryl Popelka providing the second.

During discussion on the motion, Popelka asked Athletic Director Taylor Wurth to provide context regarding his decision to recommend Merchant for the job. Four people applied for the position, Wurth said, with one dropping out ahead of the interview process.

“I would like all three of these candidates to be part of the softball program,” Wurth stated at one point before later adding that the job itself was a “doozy.”

Merchant, Wurth said, was the strongest candidate. He also told the board one of the two remaining candidates has expressed a strong interest in working as Merchant’s assistant coach – a position which is also vacant.

After looking at the petition that Hill had passed around to members of the board, Bradley expressed concern the team could be short seven to eight players this season based on the signatures.

“Will we [still] have enough for a team?” Bradley asked Wurth to which he responded, “I can’t answer that.”

“What kind of life skills are we teaching our young people to prepare them for life,” Dvorak asked of his fellow board members, “… [when] we have parents and potential athletes threatening to boycott the team if they don’t get their way? … What are we teaching our [young] people if we’re going to let a handful make our decisions for us?”

Dvorak then listed some of the names on the petition which appeared to include athletes and parents from three specific families.

Calderwood responded to Dvorak, in part, by stating, “This is bigger than a little stink. Bigger than a little stink. And it’s our job to put the best person out there – to put the best culture out there – to help those girls succeed. … [Merchant] is the wrong person for the job.”

Dvorak then asked Calderwood to explain his reasoning to which Calderwood answered he felt there was a “bad culture” within the North Tama softball “system.”

Later in the discussion, Bradley asked Wurth if he was to line up all three resumes received for the position side by side, were they all qualified?

“Were they all three equal, and [Merchant is] just a better fit?” Bradley asked.

“I would want all three to be part of the program somehow,” Wurth said before later stating, “Madonna was the better choice.” He added that Merchant had a better interview process and was generally a “better fit.”

“We hired Mr. Wurth to make this decision,” Dvorak said. “He made it, that’s what we hired him for. So why would we go against him?”

As the discussion wore down, board member Haley Blaine also spoke on the matter, stating that she had received comments from parents expressing the opposite – that some girls would now be going out for softball this year because Merchant was the coach.

“I’ve heard both sides,” Blaine said. “So we might have more [athletes] go out [for softball this year].”

Following roughly 20 minutes of discussion, president Rod Zobel asked for a roll call vote on the motion to hire Merchant. The motion passed, 4-2, with Blaine, David Boldt, Dvorak, and Popelka voting yes; Calderwood and Zobel voting no; and Bradley abstaining due to having an athlete in the program, she said.

When contacted by the North Tama Telegraph regarding the outcome of the Jan. 16 school board meeting, Merchant provided the following statement: “The environment that occurred at the [Jan. 16] meeting is exactly why the environment and culture surrounding North Tama softball needs to be addressed and changed. I have been part of building successful softball programs in the past and I am excited to work with some really good people and great girls to try to make that happen in Traer. I know I have the support of the school administration, the players, and their parents in working to make this happen.”

The 2022-2023 Iowa high school softball season begins with the first practice on May 1 followed by the first game of the season on Monday, May 22. There will be 40 games total this year. The Class 1A regional tournament is set for June 30, July 5, July 7, and July 10, while the state tournament is slated for July 17-21 in Fort Dodge for all classes.

After two winless seasons in a row, the North Tama softball team ended the 2021-2022 season with a 2-18 record.