Veteran files grievance over lost coaching jobs

Nathan Domenighini

Little did Dick Conklin know that when he was deployed to a tour of duty in Iraq, he would become unemployed in two of his three coaching jobs at Morton Junior High School.

As a returning reservist, Conklin said he thought — in compliance with state and federal law — that he would be reinstated to his previous positions. The school had other plans.

Dr. Roger Kilpatrick, superintendent of Morton Unit School District 709, said since Conklin was a coach and considered a “seasonal-temporary” employee, he was not entitled to be reinstated upon his return.

Conklin, an Army Reservist and Vietnam veteran, has filed a grievance with the Department of Labor in Chicago after not being reinstated to all of his former positions.

Conklin, 58, of Morton, coached the Morton Junior High School track, cross country and volleyball teams.

He said he was deployed June 5, 2007, but filed a leave of absence with District 709 prior to leaving. He said he told Kilpatrick that he intended on returning to his respective coaching positions upon return.

District 709 has since offered Conklin the volleyball coaching job and a possible maintenance position, which Conklin declined to accept, as he already has a job in pool maintenance.

A parent familiar with the coach contacted the Morton Times-News about the situation.

A petition for Conklin to be reinstated to all of his former positions is currently being distributed among concerned parents.

Conklin, a 35-year resident of Morton, said he has been involved in the military since he was drafted in 1970 to Vietnam. After Vietnam, he said he was treated fairly by his employer when he was reinstated to his position at Caterpillar Inc. in Mapleton.

Conklin said he feels a bit different now that he has not been offered all of his former duties at the junior high since returning from Iraq. He now works during the summer for Aquatech pool maintenance.

Conklin said he first took interest in coaching when he voluntarily worked with pole vaulters at Morton High School during the early ‘90s.

He was later hired and paid as a non-faculty assistant coach for the junior high track team between 1999 and 2000.

“The next year, they asked if I was willing to coach volleyball,” Conklin said. “I thought I would give it a try.”

Since, he has acquired the positions of head coach for volleyball, track and cross country.

He said the reason he wanted his coaching jobs back upon returning from Iraq in January is he enjoys working with children.

“I really like working with the kids and seeing them develop,” Conklin said.

He explained the feeling he gets when he sees the kids around town and they approach him saying, “Hi, coach. How are you doing?” Or, sometimes they will tell him they miss him and wish he was still their coach.

“It's very rewarding to see them,” Conklin said.

Conklin returned to Morton in January, he said. His latest term with the Army Reserves was the last, he said.

“I went to retired reserve,” Conklin said. “I'm 58. Mandatory retirement is at 60 years old.”

Prior to Conklin's request for a leave of absence, Kilpatrick said he and Conklin discussed the district's priorities.

“We talked about our first priority in the district for any of the extra-duty positions is to our teaching staff,” Kilpatrick said. “It's because when the teachers work with the students, you build relationships with the students that carry out into an activity of some kind. That builds the relationships with those teachers as well as in the classroom. We believe that has good educational value to the students.”

When Conklin returned, two of the positions were filled by junior high teachers, Kilpatrick said.

He maintains that Conklin, regardless of status in the military, was not entitled to his jobs after returning. He said District 709's legal counsel came to the conclusion that this situation does not apply to the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act because Conklin is considered a “seasonal-temporary” employee and by the district to be coach.

Kilpatrick said the decision to not offer Conklin his coaching positions with the junior high track and cross country teams was difficult, and a balancing act.

“I value Mr. Conklin’s service to our country,” he said. “These are difficult decisions. We weigh the facts, and try to do what's best for the kids.”

This is the first time, Kilpatrick said, that he has ever had to deal with such a circumstantial situation.

“This situation is very unusual,” he said. “Usually, military leaves are very clear. This was very different. It's an extra-duty thing.”

John Scully, state chair of the Illinois Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve, said these cases are very rare in Illinois because there is a discrepancy between part-time and full-time.

Scully said if an investigation by the Department of Labor does research the district’s decision, it will consider all circumstances concerning the district’s stance.

“Seasonal-temporary could play into it — he's only an employee for the season,” he added.

Nathan Domenighini can be reached at