Lakeland Union High School officials may have compiled two pages of negative comments about new LUHS boys basketball coach Rich Fortier, which the district contends came from former employers, but they didn’t come from some of his most direct past supervisors, a Lakeland Times survey of those supervisors has revealed.
They also did not emanate from Fortier’s listed references on his resume, despite the high school administration’s declaration that the comments are considered letters of reference.
The two pages of purportedly negative comments were compiled by assistant principal and activities director Justin Szews and principal Jim Bouché during the hiring process for the coach’s position. The comments were given to members of a citizens’ interview committee, who subsequently unanimously recommended hiring another candidate over Fortier. The comments were also circulated among several school board members.
At an Aug. 27 school board meeting, board member Tami Schroeder asked why the interview committee had been provided with two pages of negative comments about one of the two candidates, while receiving none about the other.
School officials did not answer her, and Schroeder did not identify the coach, though multiple sources told The Times the comments were about Fortier. The Times then asked for the two-sheet compilation in an Aug. 28 public records’ request.
In a Sept. 10 response, the school turned over some records – among them, Fortier’s resume – but denied the request for the comments’ sheets. In doing so, LUHS district administrator Todd Kleinhans acknowledged that the comments were related to Fortier, and he also indicated he had sent the sheets to at least one school board member in an email.
“Not being disclosed by the district are notes drafted by Athletic Director Justin Szews and Principal James Bouché regarding their telephone conversations with prior employers of Mr. Fortier, which were also attached to my Aug. 27 email to Mr. (school board member Joe) Fahrenbach,” Kleinhans wrote.
However, a Times investigation shows that some of Mr. Fortier’s most direct supervisors were never called – The Lakeland Times uncovered only one, and in that instance the individual said he provided no negative comments.
Prior to his employment as principal at Arbor Vitae-Woodruff, Fortier spent his entire professional career in the Rhinelander School District. He worked as a teacher at Central Elementary School, at Pelican Elementary School, and at Central Intermediate School, and was the head boys basketball coach at Rhinelander High School from 1996-2010.
After being denied the sheets of comments, The Times contacted past supervisors to try and corroborate the administration’s assertion. The Times has so far been unable to do so.
For one thing, none of Fortier’s listed references was called. Fortier listed three on his resume: Jeff Reiche, the former head basketball coach at Marathon High School; Robert Hanson, a retired Rhinelander school superintendent; and Rick Morgan, the superintendent at AV-W.
Hanson said he was never called but did write a letter of reference. He said there was “absolutely” no negative comments in the letter.
“I hired him twice,” Hanson told The Times. “I hired him as a teacher, and then I hired him as a coach, and then he was super successful in both. I didn’t put anything negative in there. It certainly wasn’t me. I’m a Rich fan.”
Likewise with Morgan, who said he wasn’t called, either. Morgan also wrote a letter but said it contained no negative comments.
“I never once gave any negative comments to anyone anywhere,” Morgan said.
Ditto with Reiche, who had nothing but praise for Fortier.
“He was a player at Rhinelander when I coached at D.C. Everest, and then, when I was out of coaching for a while, I watched his teams play, and I really liked the guy. He just runs a really good program. You are talking about one of the most highly respected head coaches in the state of Wisconsin. He’s young, arguably he’s probably in the middle of his coaching career right now, but he’s as respected as anyone.”
Other past supervisors
The Times did not stop with Fortier’s references but contacted four other past supervisors within the Rhinelander School District.
Of the four, only one was called by LUHS, and that was Tim Howell, the principal at Central Elementary. Howell, who supervised Fortier on the teaching rather than the athletics’ side, said he thought he spoke with Bouché but wasn’t sure and had nothing negative to say about Fortier in any event.
“I had nothing negative to say, no,” Howell said. “I worked with Rich for many years down here. In fact, I even coached him when he was a sophomore in high school.”
Howell said he was reluctant to talk about Fortier’s professional career as a teacher, having been the principal when Fortier was a teacher there.
“There are some confidentiality issues as far as what I tell people about teachers I have worked with,” he said. “I can’t recall incidents in which he was disciplined.”
As far as his conversation with the LUHS official, though he made no negative comments, he did say he made a positive mention about Fortier taking the Rhinelander teams to the state tournament. Fortier’s teams made three trips to state.
“I’m sure that, in some way, I talked about that, when Rich took over, the teams made it down to the state tournament, which in my mind would be a positive thing,” Howell said. “When people call for such information, I try to just state matter-of-fact facts, don’t get into necessarily real positive or real negative. These are just things that I personally may have observed or someone I would trust first-hand saying something to me may have said to me. I would not have gone either way, high or low, other than saying about the state tournament trip.”
That’s not to say there weren’t comments that some in the community would consider negative, Howell said.
“I know that over the years there have been a lot of comments made in this community about the entire career that Rich had here as a coach, things that I overhear,” he said “You hear comments about things that should be certainly taken negatively. Rich didn’t see it as a negative. The comments that came through from coaches in the lower programs was that he didn’t get involved with the younger kids. The Little Hodags program was there. Rich didn’t necessarily come to practices all the time and that sort of thing. That’s the way Rich ran it. So that’s not a negative or a positive. But there are people here who saw it as a negative.”
Roger Erdahl, the superintendent of schools for the district, said he could not remember being called but emphasized that he would not have been the appropriate person to call anyway.
“I don’t recall anything like that, although I want to stress that they may not want to talk to me necessarily for a basketball coach,” Erdahl said. “But I can’t recall anything and my qualifier would be that they would probably talk to somebody closer to the action.”
Erdahl said he knew Fortier well.
“He worked here for many years, as did I,” he said. “But I don’t have any basketball or coaching or the kinds of things they might be looking for there.”
That said, Erdahl said no issues with Fortier ever made their way to his desk.
“I don’t recall any coming to my attention, and that’s my way of saying that others may have heard things but nobody came to see me that I can recall,” he said.
Erdahl said a matter would have to be severe or persistent to get to him.
Terry Fondow, a former principal of Rhinelander High School, said he hadn’t been contacted, though he said he was no fan of The Times’ investigation, which he called a personal vendetta.
“No, they didn’t (call), but if they had I wouldn’t tell you,” he said.
Rhinelander athletic director Charlie LaHam said he wasn’t called, either. LaHam, who served as athletic director at least a year while Fortier was in Rhinelander, said Fortier did not ask him to provide a letter of reference, but he would have gladly done so if asked.
LaHam also had positive things to say about Fortier.
“No doubt he’s a good coach,” LaHam said. “In particular, he’s a very good game coach. He has tremendous rapport. I have nothing negative to say about him.”
Richard Moore may be reached at email@example.com