Hellgate High School's head tennis coach resigned Monday, less than a week after his two assistants were fired and just two days after leading the Knight boys to a second consecutive state title.
Greg Robitaille said he quit partly in solidarity with assistants Matt Laidlaw and Tracy Ledyard, who were dismissed last Tuesday due to violations of the district policy on alcohol consumption.
"They're not only very close friends of mine but they're integral parts of the Hellgate tennis program," said Robitaille, who is a business owner and regular substitute teacher in Missoula. He was paid $3,029 as head coach.
District officials could not speak specifically about the issue, saying it is a personnel matter. But Robitaille said a complaint surfaced last week that Laidlaw and Ledyard each ordered a beer with their dinner at an Applebee's after a day of competition at the Helena Invitational on the weekend of May 6-7.
"It really was not a big deal, but it was a big enough deal that we had to do something about it," said Steve McHugh, human resources manager for the Missoula County Public Schools district.
The district has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to alcohol consumption during official school outings. Laidlaw did not comment when contacted by the Missoulian, but Ledyard said she's sad to be leaving "an incredible group of kids."
"What's sad is that this has kind of taken attention from what they've done at state," she said. "They're an incredible group of kids and I've had the privilege of being with them and being supported by their parents and this amazing coaching staff."
Laidlaw is a special education teacher at Big Sky High School, where he was slated to interview for the open head coach position for the boys' varsity basketball team. He was paid $2,072 as a Hellgate tennis assistant and just finished his seventh year.
Ledyard is a social worker at Hellgate, and was an unpaid volunteer assistant for the tennis team for the last four years.
Neither of their jobs with the district have been affected.
Stephen Rohde, a retired volunteer coach with the Hellgate team, said the dismissal of Laidlaw and Ledyard is a grave injustice.
"Missoula's school district is out of line," he said. "No probation, no warning, no nothing. It's appalling and it's offensive. The district has lost two great coaches."
Rohde was not present at the Helena Invitational. But he said that it's not at all uncommon for coaches and assistants to have a drink with their dinner, as most don't know they are in violation of district policy.
"I'm guilty," he said. "I went to state the last two years and I'm guilty of sitting there after a long day of tennis of having a beer. You know why? Because it's socially acceptable behavior."
Robitaille was with 14 team members in the hotel that night and not at the restaurant. Laidlaw and Ledyard were having dinner with 10 students and were driven to and from the restaurant by a bus driver.
Robitaille's decision to resign after 10 years as coach also stems from his ongoing frustration with the issue of coaches' pay, he said. Tennis programs are only allowed one paid assistant for teams that regularly draw 100 students or more.
"My goal is to ensure that whoever the tennis coach is going forward, that they have a fair and equitable compensation compared with the rest of the coaches' salary matrix," he said.
He feels most badly for his two assistants, who "have given me everything."
"I've got a pit in my stomach for Matt and Tracy and their families," he said.
Lynn Farmer, activities director and assistant principal at Hellgate, also would not comment on the specifics of the firing of Laidlaw and Ledyard.
She was surprised when she received a one-sentence letter of resignation from Robitaille on Monday.
"He wanted it effective upon conclusion of the tournament in Great Falls," said Farmer. "That's all it said."
At that tournament, the Hellgate boys won their second straight state title.
There are now open positions for tennis coach and assistant coach at Hellgate.
"It's unfortunate," she said. "But the job is open and Missoula is a great tennis community."
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.