By Alex Byington

Killeen Daily Herald

Seven months into his first year on the job, Salado Superintendent Michael Novotny sees no reason to make any sweeping changes within the Eagles athletic program.

"I think that our athletic program and our coaches do a good job," Novotny said. "I think we have a good athletic program."

But, in light of a recent effort by a select group of dissatisfied parents, that doesn't mean there can't be some small changes.

"Now, is there room for improvement? Yes, there certainly is. And that's why we're going to work collaboratively with the parents to find those areas of improvement and figure out how to do that," Novotny said. "(Let's) not just list concerns, but figure out solutions in how we can improve things to provide the best possible program for our kids."

During the open session at Monday's school board meeting, Salado parent Ty Hankamer presented a petition for "positive change" within the Salado athletic and instructional program that was reportedly signed by nearly 340 members of the Salado community.

The petition features an admonishment of the current Salado athletic administration and second-year athletic director and head football coach Glenn Talbott, requesting "a change in leadership and program administration."

Talbott's yearly contract with the school is one of many up for renewal at the next school board meeting in February.

The petition lists nine reasons for "change," claiming everything from bullying by coaches to a perceived overall decrease in the student-athlete population in Salado.

"It lists nine points of different concerns they have, but it never specifies what they're asking for or what the solution is," Novotny said, adding the petition did not include the list of the 340 signees for fear of "repercussions" against either themselves or their children.

"(But) by putting vague, unsubstantiated claims in petition, that isn't helpful for any of us to deal with."

There's also a claim that Talbott, a longtime defensive coordinator hired in July 2010 to replace departed Jeff Cheatham - who left after a decade at Salado for 5A Round Rock - was "assigned a mentor for the past 18 months due to his inexperience in leadership and athletic program development."

Regarding the four claims of bullying by coaches, Novotny admitted he's dealt with two reports made against coaches - neither of which he would classify as "bullying" or "harassment" - and both were resolved to the satisfaction of the parents involved. Novotny also directly denied Talbott was never formally administered a "mentor," only that he has an informal relationship with an experienced former athletic director who happens to be an employee of SISD.

There also was a counter-petition submitted showing support, started by the Salado student body. The student-led petition included a list of nearly 160 student-athletes signatures - several with phone numbers next to their names - while making counter arguments for each of the allegations. Three students stood up at the school board meeting and voiced their support, including senior Mikey Joe Sellers.

In an effort the quantify the overall opinion of the average Salado student-athlete, Novotny personally administered a survey to a randomly selected group of athletes. More than 70 percent of the anonymous student-athletes either strongly agreed or agreed with the statements describing their athletic experience at Salado as positive.

"On all 19 questions, a majority of the kids gave us an A or a B - the two highest ratings - on the choices of every question," Novotny said.

Among the questions that received the highest positive response was "I know what is expected of me in athletics," of which 96 percent of the students agreed, while the lowest was "My coaches make me excited about athletics" which only 54.7 percent agreed. Nearly 80 percent of student-athletes said they were either "extremely satisfied" or satisfied with Salado as "a place to go to school."

"Truly, I do appreciate the passion and involvement and high level of interest regarding our district and regarding our athletic program, and I do think we share the same goal of wanting to provide the best possible education to all our students, including with athletics," Novotny said.

In order to try and "bring every one together in a collaborative effort," Novotny is putting together a committee of parents, coaches, administrators and athletes to talk about the athletic program.

Main petition points

* A decrease in student-athlete population, contending that "more than 25 secondary student athletes" have transferred to surrounding school districts "in search of higher (athletic) standards." It also is pointed out that the current senior class only has 90 students, a decrease from the 123 students reportedly enrolled as freshmen in 2009.

* It also points out less than 30 student-athletes that previously played football have either stopped playing altogether or transferred to surrounding districts in the past two years.

* A loss of qualified/effective coaches, citing four of the ISD's "most respected and experienced coaches/teachers" have left for better opportunities despite still maintaining residency around Salado.

* An overall lack of leadership and support in fostering a general interest in the athletic program, referencing that the girls basketball team is "barely able to field (two) teams."

* Rising student injuries, claiming an "inordinate amount of significant weight room and other" injuries have taken place over the past several years.

* Loss of community/athletic support, indicating a "significant drop in sponsorships, support and attendance" at the Salado Athletic Booster Club fall fundraising event, which directly led to "lower funds" for the athletic department.

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