BELGRADE - The athletic director of Belgrade High School returns to work on Wednesday morning, following a month of being on paid administrative leave for accusations that he mishandled school funds.
Athletic Director Rick Phillips faced the district's school board on Tuesday night after being accused of mishandling the district's funds. It was a very emotional night at Belgrade Middle School, as Phillips adamantly denied all allegations brought against him by the school board.
Phillips has been on paid administrative leave since February 25. Board members says that Phillips mishandled funds, to the tune of $17,000, brought in from Montana High School Association sports tournaments hosted by the school and organized by Phillips. The board cited emails and receipts as far back as 2016 regarding payments brought in during the tournaments.
Phillips and his lawyer say that the money never belonged to the school, but the money belonged to the MHSA. They assert that those funds were never mishandled.
Throughout Tuesday's special board meeting, there was confusion between Phillips and the board members about Phillips' role and what constituted bonus time that was worth being paid outside of his salary.
The school board even saw dissent within its own ranks, with board trustee Dee Batey calling the accusations unfounded and saying they should have been handled a long time ago, before getting to the point that they were brought to the public.
"There were question marks all through it," Batey said on Tuesday night. "Nobody seemed to have a lot of answers. Because we didn't know. We need to find out. And get this straightened out. This should have been probably straightened out without this happening."
At least a hundred people attended the board meeting at Belgrade Middle School on Tuesday, with some even claiming the accusations were part of a witch hunt. Phillips supported former Belgrade softball coach Mike Neubauer, who was accused last year of bullying players on his team. Neubauer was not rehired for this spring season, though many members of the community rallied around him and spoke in his defense.
Superintendent Godfrey Saunders adamantly denies all suggestions that the school board is after Phillips because of his support of Neubauer.
After a tense exchange between Phillips, his lawyer, and members of the school board on Tuesday night, the board went into a closed session to privately discuss Phillips' employment, also taking comments from around two dozen individuals in support of Phillips during the session. Following that, Board Chairman Peter Morgan adjourned the meeting publicly, with Phillips announcing that he would be returning to work on Wednesday.
Phillips and members of the board declined to give any more information at the time. A lawyer for the school district said they still take the allegations against Phillips seriously.
Phillips is in his 10th year as the athletic director at Belgrade High School, and was named 2014's Montana Athletic Director of the Year. According to MontanaSports.com, in January, he was awarded a Service Citation by the MHSA for "significant contributions to the MHSA."
Phillips is also listed as the president of the Montana Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.