Read more: Details of Timpview High audit revealed
PROVO — Louis Wong says he isn't just devastated by the Provo School District's decision to suspend him, he and his attorney believe he's being blamed for school and district practices that were in place before he was hired.
After a visibly tired Wong met with the Deseret News Wednesday to answer allegations of financial improprieties being leveled at him, about 200 supporters rallied to his defense at a school board meeting.
The successful Timpview High School football coach was passionate in defending himself against the allegations and said he plans to appeal the school district's decision to suspend him for 30 days without pay pending termination. That means he'll have a hearing within 15 days. If he's unsuccessful, he'll be fired.
Wong was suspended Tuesday after months of investigations by the state and district. Questions about the financial practices of the coach and school administration arose during fundraising efforts for a state-of-the-art weight room on the high school’s campus.
A state audit and subsequent probe by Provo School District officials alleges a number of questionable financial transactions, including charging personal car repairs to the school, failure to run background checks on some assistant coaches, failure to secure pre-authorization for travel, questionable reimbursement for personal expenses, meals and gifts when working for an outside agency, inconsistent and inadequate receipts and records, as well as soliciting and accepting personal compensation from a clothing company.
Wong insisted Wednesday he hasn't done anything wrong and that he is being fired for common practices in the district.
Angered by the district's actions, patrons crowded into the Provo School Board's regular Wednesday meeting in hopes of asking questions and voicing their support for the high school coach who holds four state titles in his seven seasons.
The school board asked for civility at the beginning of the meeting. But when officials announced that public comment would be limited to 30 minutes, and that questions asked directly of board members would not be answered, the gathering quickly grew rowdy. Supporters shouted out comments or questions, even a few names, while Board President Kristine Manwaring continually tried to keep the emotional meeting moving and cordial, several times by pounding her gavel and raising her voice.
Among those who spoke on the coach's behalf was assistant football coach Don Olsen, who was hired 17 years ago by former head coach and current assistant coach Chad Van Orden. He said he was hired not only to help coach but also to raise money for the football program.
"I can count one time that we had a meeting where there was any training involved in fundraising," he said. "How can you throw a man under the bus for his fundraising and have no policy, no training? This man is going to lose his job or has lost his job because of you? Seems to me it's pretty dysfunctional. ... This community needs coach Wong. These boys need coach Wong."
Thunderous applause followed Olsen's remarks, which echoed what Wong and his attorney, Elizabeth Dunning, told the Deseret News in an exclusive interview hours earlier.
When asked what kind of training the district provided to him regarding reimbursement requests, travel pre-authorizations and accounting for expenses and expenditures, Wong said, "Zero."
He said that when he took over head coaching duties seven years ago, he relied on a system that was already in place. Issues would arise now and then and he learned from them, he said. While he asked questions when he had them, he was basically left to figure out the system for himself.
That is exactly what bothers his attorney. Instead of training Wong, the district is punishing him for issues that either weren't his responsibility or it relied on rules or procedures that he wasn't aware of, Dunning said.
While a state audit paints a picture of Wong as a person who failed to follow rules that were clearly established, he and Dunning said he was simply following the lead of Timpview's administration.
In fact, Dunning believes that the district is trying to fire Wong for failures on the part of school and district administrations.
For example, in the termination letter given to Wong on Tuesday, district officials list several reasons why he is being suspended pending termination. One of those was "holding onto school funds longer than three days" and the letter refers to a state law prohibiting that.
Wong said this refers to money collected for a summer camp in July of 2011. When he gathered the money, there was no one at the school to give the money to because most staff members don't work during the summer. Wong said the "very day the financial secretary was back, that was the day it was deposited."
Dunning said the state's audit criticizes the high school for not providing an acceptable process to turn money in in a timely fashion.
"The school is deficient in not having a process to do this, but the district is blaming the football coach for the lack of process," she said.
Another reason listed in the suspension letter was the decision to charge expenses to Timpview when Wong took the team and its coaches to a summer camp in Price at USU-Eastern in 2010. While Wong and his coaching staff were paid by USU-Eastern, the players paid the college to participate in the camp.
Wong said he did ask for reimbursements for meals for him and his coaching staff, but he takes issue with the assertion that it was not a Timpview High or district approved activity. The coach said state rules allow him to send his team to one "padded camp." It was approved by administrators and Wong viewed it as a valuable team building experience.
Another reason listed in the letter for suspending Wong was a failure to conduct background checks on several people working with the Timpview High team, either as assistant coaches or volunteers.
Dunning said such checks were not Wong's responsibility. The code cited in the audit spells out that it is the superintendent's job, or the job of his designee, to ensure all of those working with students have a criminal background check.
The letter also said one of the grounds for suspension is that Wong hung sponsors' signs at the school without district approval. Wong said no other Timpview coaches have sought district approval to hang sponsors' banners in the stadium, a practice that predates the coach.
As for the audit, Wong said he takes issue with each and every allegation.
• The audit questioned reimbursement for personal food and gifts.
Wong said he never took anything for himself, including a $1,500 clothing allowance afforded him by his contract with Under Armour. He said during his second season as head coach, former principal George Bayles asked him to not only handle head coaching duties but also to spearhead fundraising efforts.
In fact, Bayles, who retired last spring, rearranged Wong's teaching schedule and gave him an extra free period so he could work on fundraising projects.
"If a donor is or has been very generous, and you want to take them to lunch, he felt that was part of the fundraising process," Dunning said.
"That is how fundraising works," Wong added.
• The audit questioned meals purchased for the team during service projects.
"I can't take 100 players to lunch or dinner after a service project?" Wong asked. "Here is how I look at it, where is all of that money going? To the program."
• The audit questions Reimbursements for personal repairs to Wong's vehicles totaling $759.84. The audit breaks those out into four transactions, two of which were repaid by Wong.
The coach said that he fully intended to pay for the other repairs, as well, but believes it was lost in a very chaotic accounting process.
"Three people sign off on that and we all missed it," he said.
• The audit said Wong did not have authorization to sign a contract with Under Armour and he violated state law, as well as district policy, which prohibits public employees from accepting or soliciting gifts or compensation.
Wong said he never saw the contract as a personal benefit. He used all of the clothing allowance offered by the contract — which was broken down into $10,000 for coaches and $1,500 for the head coach — for coaches, boosters and players.
Dunning said Bayles has confirmed that he approved the Under Armour contracts.
Wong said he never saw the $1,500 personal stipend as truly personal. He saw it as a way to reward his coaches and other supporters of the program, including the parents who worked in the concession stand and who organized other events for the players.
Not only that, but he included the apparel in a fundraiser the district has each year.
"Every April they ask me, 'Can you contribute anything for the Timpview basket?'" he said. "And I give them whatever I have. ... I love to help."
He said the items are usually apparel worth about $300.
• The audit questioned a personal reimbursement for airfare and hotel to a vendor-sponsored football game Wong attended in Florida.
Wong said he paid for Van Orden, who is also the school's athletic director, to go on that trip with Bayles' permission. Van Orden had taken Wong with him when he was an assistant and the team had a player in an all-star game.
"I asked George if I could do the same for (Van Orden) and he said yes," Wong said. "George came on that trip with us. I paid for the airfare and (Van Orden's) room on my credit card, and then I got reimbursed."
He said he specified that it was for Van Orden.
Dunning said she fears that the audit found issues with the school that were the responsibility of administrators — not Wong.
"But what Lou did for the school and community went far beyond the field of play," she said. "What he did is what we want our educators to do — care about the kids who are entrusted to their care, to help them, to teach them to make the right choices, to be team players, to cooperate and to work for what they get."
Timpview High junior Marisa Lee told board members Wednesday that the lessons Wong taught his students “can never be taken away” and what he’s done for all of the students and the community that supports them “will never be forgotten.”
"I'm heartbroken that I’m to this point," said board member Michelle Kaufusi. "We did not desire this to get to this point. This is elevated to state level. You all need to know it was taken out of (Timpview) Principal Todd McKee's hands."
Another supporter suggested that the district’s action was extreme and unwarranted.
"The man creates one of the most successful programs in the history of Utah, raises millions of dollars for Timpview, and you’re going to run him out of town for sloppy paperwork and pretzels?" supporter Ben Harrison said.
Board public statement44 comments on this story
"The school district has an obligation to investigate when it sees signs that district and state policies are not being followed. Such investigations are governed by established district policy and procedures that safeguard employees through confidentiality and an appeal process. We believe that this process leads to the best outcome. The school board supports all of its employees in the performance of their duties that promote excellence in education."
"Though we appreciate the excellent work done by the fundraising policy committee, the school board takes responsibility for choosing not to pass the committees final draft. We directed district staff to use much of the original language and principles from the committee in preparing a shortened, more concise and flexible policy. We are currently taking public input on this policy which is posted on the website. We have an obligation to provide public transparency and accountability for all funds that flow into district-run programs that impact students."