MISSOULA — The Arlee School District issued a response Thursday afternoon in regards to an article published in Thursday’s Missoulian and on 406mtsports.com about boys basketball coach Zanen Pitts stepping down.
In the statement, Arlee Superintendent James Baldwin expressed his disappointment in how the news was disseminated. The press release also alleged misconduct by Pitts.
However, a former Arlee administrator and a former school board member backed up some points Pitts made in his speech to his team about stepping down. They spoke about how the disrespect shown toward Pitts may have played into his decision to step down.
The statement from Baldwin mentioned that “normally the District would not comment on why an employee is leaving, but the false information provided by Mr. Pitts requires a response,” but failed to mention what was false.
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“Mr. Pitts chose to blame the administration for his departure, and to make derogatory comments about school staff who have attempted to hold him accountable during his tenure as a basketball coach,” Baldwin said. "For several years, and through many administrators, the District has addressed Mr. Pitts’ misconduct both formally and informally, with varying degrees of success. Public school districts are required to follow federal and state rules regarding equity in high school sports, and the Montana High School Association enforces additional rules regarding benefits to student athletes.
“Mr. Pitts was reprimanded formally and informally for violating these rules, and he continued to disregard the direction of the administrators who were tasked with addressing his misconduct. Most recently, Mr. Pitts had a violent outburst in another school’s locker room and destroyed the school’s property. This incident reflected poorly on the Arlee School District and boys’ basketball program, and the District was obligated to reimburse the other school for the vandalism. The District charged Mr. Pitts with the cost it incurred for his violent outburst, and he expressed significant dissatisfaction with that decision.”
Baldwin couldn’t be reached for further comment regarding more specifics about what happened in the locker room. Two sources in the locker room said the incident occurred after Arlee's buzzer-beater win over Loyola on Feb. 5 and Pitts accidentally slapped a whiteboard too hard, breaking part of it. A Loyola official declined to comment on what happened.
Despite the alleged misconduct, Pitts, 33, on May 1 was offered a contract for the 2019-20 season to return as the head coach and was unanimously approved by the board. He later decided to not sign the contract. He had led Arlee to four consecutive State C titles games, a first in Montana history, and won two state championships while compiling a 140-18 (.886) record in six seasons.
Former Arlee Superintendent Dave Whitesell said he wasn’t shocked about the news of Pitts stepping down. He said Arlee school board members Kris Gardner and Rick Desjarlais approached him in the fall of 2015 wanting to get rid of Pitts as the head coach.
“I guess you could say I was expecting it,” Whitesell said. “It’s been a battle. My first year there, before basketball season started, I had the board chair and vice chair in my office wanting me to put him on the agenda to be terminated before the season started. They didn’t have a reason. I asked them based on what. They didn’t have anything tangible. I said, 'You guys voted 5-0 last May to approve him and it’s still the same board. I’m not putting that on the agenda.' I wasn’t going to be a party of that. But they had ways to circumvent me.”
Whitesell said after the 2015 season that the board tried to vote out Pitts during their meeting on May 10, 2016. According to the minutes from the meeting, the vote to hire Pitts failed with a 2-2 count and one abstention. After eight members of the public spoke, Pitts was approved by a 3-2 vote.
“It was my recommendation as the superintendent to hire him, and the board voted no," Whitesell said. "I called them on it. They made a motion and then they quickly voted. I remember Zanen was at the meeting. He said ‘Wait, what just happened, did you just fire me?’ That’s when I jumped in and said that’s not how it works. When you make a motion, there’s an opportunity for discussion. They ran it with a discussion. People went up and were able to discuss their support for him. They ended up voting 3-2 to keep him.”
A former school board member who asked to not be identified wasn’t shocked either that Pitts was stepping down.
“I’ve seen it coming for a while,” the former school board member said. “They’re trying to do something for the good. Basketball coaching in high school in Class C doesn’t pay much, so he definitely wasn’t here for the money. I told him before when I was on the school board that I was behind him 100 percent.
“I feel bad for Zanen. I feel bad for the kids. I don’t blame Zanen for leaving. If I was him, I wouldn’t go back. From my understanding, they did try to get him to move on from the team. I honestly think Zanen would be a fool to go back. Retribution and all that would happen.”
Pitts had expressed disappointment that the school didn’t want to be associated with the Warrior Movement. Baldwin’s statement didn’t address that specifically but offered support to the student-athletes involved in the out-of-school club.
“The District is immensely proud of the student athletes who formed the Warrior Movement and for all of their work to bring attention to the mental health needs of students across the State of Montana and nationally,” Baldwin said. “The District will continue to support all of its student athletes and to support their work in the Warrior Movement. We also will hold our staff accountable for following the law with regard to equity in student activities, and for conducting themselves appropriately when representing the District. Our number one focus is the welfare of our students and to encourage all students to thrive and to achieve academic and personal success.”
Whitesell said the concerns with associating Arlee and the Warrior Movement were about breaking MHSA rules and making sure athletes didn’t lose their amateur status or eligibility. He said when those situations arose, like the team’s trip to Nike headquarters in the summer of 2018, that they’d ask the MHSA for approval.
However, Whitesell and the former school board member both felt some members on the school board had jealousy issues with the publicity the boys basketball team was getting through the Warrior Movement.
“I think there were some folks on the board who thought there was something not on the up and up with it,” Whitesell said. “That people were benefiting from it who didn’t deserve it. That the authenticity wasn’t genuine. Just the questioning that came up at board meetings from separate board members.
“It was all disguised in a way that we want to make sure no one gets in trouble. I think there was a distrust by some in what Zanen was trying to do. Why? That absolutely beats me. It’s mind boggling. Maybe it has to do with the crabs in the bucket phenomena. I think a lot of it had to do with that.”
Four board members didn’t respond to a request for comment via email. One didn’t return a text seeking comment. Amy Bartels, who’s still listed as the athletic director on Arlee’s website, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Lonnie Morin, the district clerk, didn’t answer an email seeking elaboration about the superintendent’s statement.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.