Parents and students at Tarkington ISD are rallying behind a legendary girls’ volleyball coach who led the team to multiple championship titles during her 32 years of coaching for the district.
Last week, after word began to spread about Coach Denise Johnson’s departure, many people in the community of Tarkington began demanding answers from district officials about why Johnson reportedly was asked to sign a contract renewal with stipulations she believed put her in an untenable situation.
Johnson has not issued a public statement or made comment to any media; however, her supporters believe she has been treated poorly and question the judgment of district administrators. On Monday, July 30, a group of 19 of Johnson’s supporters confronted Superintendent Dr. Mark Keith at the administration office.
Keith agreed to an impromptu meeting with the group in the school board chamber and tried to explain that Johnson was not forced to resign. He claims he pleaded with her to stay on with the district.
“I don’t know why she didn’t stay. She didn’t have to resign,” he said. “I even went to her house to ask her to stay.”
Former Liberty County Judge Lloyd “Tookie” Kirkham, whose granddaughters Charli and Parker are expected to play on this year’s teams, was among the group confronting the superintendent. He claims the contract Johnson was asked to sign, which was prepared by the district’s attorney, forced her to agree that when her contract was over she would never again work for Tarkington ISD and could never sue the school district.
“How can you make her sign a paper like that?” Kirkham asked.
Kirkham’s wife, Cordella, who worked for the district for 35 years, says that the district is in danger of creating a hostile work environment.
“You do not want to have that image,” Cordella Kirkham told Keith.
The former county judge asked Keith to “be the hero” in this situation and allow Johnson to return for four months, just enough time to see the incoming teams through the volleyball season and help train her replacement.
Like Kirkham, another volleyball parent, who asked not to be named, pleaded for the four-month period so that Johnson can mentor the new coach. The parent believes that Johnson can teach the new coach the principles, standards and expectations that are needed for the teams to succeed.
“Coach Johnson has a legacy here. Some people will tell you that Coach Johnson talks ugly to the girls or that she is too hard on them, but you know what? My daughter walked onto that team last year and yes, she hollered at her. Big deal,” the parent said. “Do you think she’s scarred for life? No. It’s made her stronger. I have no complaints about the lady. That is what you come into when you are in sports. It’s about discipline.”
The parents also were concerned about their daughters’ upcoming trip to Disneyland, claiming they are uncomfortable with sending their daughters out of state, on an airplane, with a coach they have never met. The unnamed parent said the girls worked hard for the trip and deserve to go with Johnson.
“These girls, since junior high, have played for her and they all feel like their bubbles have been burst. They are hard-working students, straight A students. This is nothing toward you, Dr. Keith, but this is so wrong,” the parent said.
Another mother, who also did not want to be named for fear of retaliation, explained how she moved into Tarkington ISD just so her daughter could play volleyball with Coach Johnson, and now feels betrayed. She explained how she sold her home in another district and bought one in Tarkington ISD so her daughter could attend a good school and play for the legendary coach.
“I don’t see how someone else is going to come in and implement the same values and commitments. It took us a long time to get this. Other opposing districts are rejoicing knowing that Coach Johnson is gone because they don’t think we are a threat any longer,” the mother said.
Student-athlete Georgia Weeks asked to read a letter she wrote on Johnson’s behalf. In the letter she explains that she was inspired to become part of the volleyball team as a second-grader.
“I remember being just a second-grader when the high school bus drove by the primary, making its rounds to each of the schools. The sign on the bus read: ‘Tarkington LadyHorns playoffs, Round 3,’” Weeks said. “I looked up to every single girl sitting on the bus. It gave me something to strive for in the years to come. I accomplished my goal and became one of those girls on the bus. From there on, I never looked back.”
After the meeting, Keith was asked if there was anything he could do to rescind Johnson’s resignation. He replied that he could take a poll from the board for direction.
According to parents at Monday’s meeting, district officials now have asked for an informal gathering with the volleyball teams this afternoon at 5 p.m. in the high school gym.
Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org