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Thursday, March 9, 2006 06:26 am

Foul play

Southeast High rejects better-qualified African-American applicant for coaching position

When I called Elbert Kern last week, the first words out of his mouth were simply “I’m done.” Kern’s tone reinforced that sentiment: His voice was low, hollow, tired, resigned, as though he couldn’t even muster the energy to be bitter or mad. As we talked, he kept shrugging off questions by saying things like “I don’t want to stir up the wasp’s nest” and “I don’t want to be the rabble-rouser.” But what happened to Kern is so befuddling that it has made some people in Springfield mad and bitter on his behalf. He may not want to stir up the wasp’s nest, but some Springfield leaders are ready to rouse rabble for him. All Kern did was apply for a job. He’s a football coach working in the Chicago public-school system; for the past 12 years, he has been head coach of the varsity squad at Steinmetz Academic Centre, where he has led the Silver Streaks to an impressive record, including two consecutive state-playoff berths.  But with a young family (four kids under the age of 9) and a keen awareness of Chicago Public Schools’ current financial woes, Kern is in the midst of a serious job hunt. “I’m just looking to get out of the Chicago Public School system and the crisis we have up here because of the budget,” he says. “I don’t want to be left out in the cold on something I have a passion for, and that’s working with kids.” Springfield’s Southeast High School appeared to be a perfect fit. The Spartans were looking for someone to replace Willie Boyd, who resigned as head coach and PE instructor four months ago. Kern not only has a dozen years’ experience as a head coach, he is also certified to teach PE at both the elementary and secondary levels. He has a master’s degree in education and prides himself on inspiring his players to be “productive not only on the field but in the classroom as well.” The title of his master’s thesis was “Positive Decision-Making for Adolescents.” But the Southeast committee charged with selecting a new coach chose instead Jeff Thomas, an English instructor who has been an assistant coach at Southeast for seven years. After a two-week delay, the school board of District 186 confirmed Thomas’s appointment by a 5-1 vote. Here’s where things become befuddling. Kern is not only the best-qualified candidate; he also brings a bonus factor Thomas lacks. Kern is black. Thomas is white. The school district is under a desegregation order. Isn’t this the same school board that just hired a full-time minority recruiter to diversify the faculty? Apparently not. “The district hired a recruiter,” says Carol Votsmier, director of communications for District 186, “not a minority recruiter, just a recruiter. We are hoping to increase the number of minority teachers that we have, but she was not hired specifically to recruit minority teachers.” Well then, somebody should tell Judith Johnson, who wielded the gavel on the vote approving the recruiter. “Her main emphasis is supposed to be on minority recruitment. That’s my understanding. Now, I’m only the school-board president,” Johnson says dryly, “so that doesn’t mean I know everything. But back to Kern and the coaching job. The desegregation order doesn’t apply to that position, Votsmier says, because it only covers teaching jobs. “This is just a coaching position,” Votsmier says. Again, I’m bewildered. Where I come from — Texas — no one refers to the job of leading the varsity football team as “just a coaching position.” I realize that here in Illinois, people place some kind of Holy Ghost in the Trinity instead of revering the triune godhead that Texans worship (God, Jesus, and the football coach). Still, I can’t fathom how coaching is less important than teaching when it comes to integration. Rick Grenzebach, attorney for the district, says the federal desegregation order entered back in the mid-1970s doesn’t specifically include or exclude coaching positions. “The order, in some respects, could be clearer than it is,” he says, “but, basically, the spirit of the order is that the district should endeavor to hire certificated employees — teachers and administrators — to a percentage level equal to the community at large.” He points to the fact that the district did offer Kern a job teaching physical education — or, as we Texans might say, “just teaching PE” — as evidence that the decision not to hire him for the coaching job does not violate the federal order. We may eventually get a second opinion on that perspective. This week, Springfield Ward 2 Ald. Frank McNeil sent a letter to the school board saying that he has asked the NAACP to investigate the district’s compliance with the federal order. He’s going to get some help from the unlikeliest source: the same guy who last week told me, “I don’t want to be the one who caused all this drama; all I did was interview for a darn job.” When I talked to Kern last night, he had agreed to cooperate with local leaders’ efforts. “If the NAACP has this thing where they would like to hire more qualified minorities down there,” he says, “then let’s play ball.”


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Wednesday Sept. 26th