Sutherland

WINFIELD – A successful high school coach has filed a lawsuit hoping to have a state law about the hiring of non-teacher coaches declared unconstitutional.

Paul Sutherland filed his lawsuit against the Putnam County Board of Education on June 1 in Putnam Circuit Court. From 2000 to 2008, Sutherland was the coach of the Winfield High School girls basketball team. During those eight years, his teams compiled a 159-43 record, made six state tournament appearances and winning two state Class AA titles.

But for the 2008-09 season, Sutherland was removed from his coaching position because the job was given to a teacher.

"Under West Virginia law, any teacher employed by a board of education is given hiring preference and the right of first refusal for any coaching position over any non-teacher solely by virtue of their employment and without regard for the non-teacher's current position, qualifications, seniority, success or tenure," Sutherland's complaint states. "In fact, even a teacher with no playing or coaching experience, training or qualifications must be hired over the non-teacher under state law."

Sutherland, through attorney Rich Holtzapfel, goes on to note that even if a non-teacher secures a coaching job, the position is posted as open every year unlike jobs for teacher-coaches that are automatically renewed without being posted.

Sutherland is a real estate agent. He was replaced at Winfield by Tim Toler when Toler applied for the coaching position last summer.

"The purpose of this lawsuit is to challenge the Constitutionality and fundamental fairness of state law governing the selection and hiring process of secondary school coaches," the complaint states. "While the defendant Putnam County Board of Education admittedly followed state law in this case, plaintiff contends the law is arbitrary, capricious and bears no rational relationship to any legitimate governmental purpose.

"Further, the law effectively fails to protect the best interests of students as it denies them to opportunity to have the most qualified individuals as coaches."

Sutherland's complaint notes that non-teacher coaches must complete a $250 training course designed, sponsored and presented by the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission (WVSSAC) to become a "authorized certified coach."

Teachers, however, simply must be employed by the school board.

"The law assumes that every person with a teaching certificate has already been trained in coaching principles, sports first aid and is knowledgeable of WVSSAC Rules and Regulations," the complaint states. "Thus, a teacher who, for example, majored in English or physics in college yet never played any sport nor has had one coaching or first aid class is automatically deemed to be qualified to coach once they are hired by a board of education.

"In such a case, the teacher is far less qualified to coach than a non-teacher who is an 'authorized certified coach.' No rational basis exists for allowing teachers to receive automatic coaching status solely by virtue of their employment."

Sutherland goes on to again note the failure of the law to considered "the best interests of the students" who play sports.

"A coach clearly is more than just a paid baby-sitter," Sutherland says. "A coach is an educator of students. ...

"In schools all over West Virginia, non-teacher coaches play a vital role in the education process by filling coaching positions that would otherwise be vacant. Considering the many, many hours demanded by any coaching position, along with the relatively small paycheck attendant to such positions, coaches are clearly not motivated by money. Non-teacher coaches must be given protection for the sacrifice they make and the valuable service to provide to students."

He calls the law "arbitrary, capricious, patently unfair" and a violation of his right to equal protection and due process.

Sutherland seeks to have the law declared unconstitutional and hopes to be reinstated to his coaching position for the 2009-10 season via an injunction.

He also seeks attorney fees and expenses as well as other relief.

The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Phillip Stowers.

Putnam Circuit Court case number: 09-C-164

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