By Marty Farmer
Chris Ledbetter's return as the head coach of the Oak Park and River Forest High School baseball team won't be happening after all. Ledbetter, who took a leave of absence last season, was slated to return to the Huskies this spring.
However, the administration at OPRF made the decision that Joe Parenti will serve as the team's interim head coach, effective March 22. At the end of this season, OPRF will conduct its search to hire a permanent head baseball coach per the school district's hiring process.
OPRF baseball players and their parents were notified of the head coaching change via an email on the evening of March 22 from Principal Nathaniel Rouse and Athletic Director John Stelzer.
Ledbetter, an OPRF alumnus, was successful as the program's head coach. In 17 seasons, he coached the Huskies to a 443-170-2 overall record and five state final appearances, highlighted by a 4A state championship in 2012.
He remains a physical education teacher at OPRF.
On Sunday, March 17, Ledbetter was interviewed by Wednesday Journal sports reporter Melvin Tate for the annual OPRF baseball season preview. Ledbetter said during the interview, "We started with a clean slate. Last year's over with; we want to create new memories with this group." The interview occurred four days before the email announcing the coaching change.
While OPRF currently will not reveal the reasons for Ledbetter's firing, several sources confirmed issues of concern regarding the veteran coach.
Wednesday Journal sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) letter via email to OPRF on Friday, March 23. The letter included a handful of questions about Ledbetter, including whether the school has received any formal complaints about him.
OPRF, which has not responded yet to the FOIA, has until Friday, March 30 to respond. The letter was initially sent to Stelzer, who forwarded it to Director of Communications & Community Relations Karin Sullivan. She sent it to OPRF's FOIA officer Gail Kalmerton.
According to five OPRF baseball parents, a primary concern for several seasons about Ledbetter has been his erratic and disconcerting behavior during games. The behavior has manifested itself what these parents perceive to be peculiar mannerisms, capricious decision-making and excessively harsh verbal treatment of players. He has been deemed untrustworthy as well by several people critical of his behavior on and off the field.
Multiple OPRF baseball parents also stated that Ledbetter had an extremely negative effect on their son's passion for the game, recruiting opportunities and overall experience as a varsity baseball player at OPRF.
Beyond issues with Ledbetter, the parents also expressed frustration with the school, specifically Stelzer and his handling of the situation. They claim multiple letters have been sent to the athletic department regarding Ledbetter with essentially no response. Others were critical of the school when Ledbetter took his leave of absence and not a word of explanation was offered. In general, several parents feel there is no real channel provided for them through the athletic department in the event of concern.
"I feel like I'm very responsive to the (head coaching) situation," Stelzer said. "I had three parents recently reach out to me via e-mail before the news release. I called all three back to have a personal conversation.
"I really feel that I, (OPRF Assistant Athletic Director) Courtney (Sakellaris) and the school try to be as responsive as possible to all parental queries," Stelzer added. "Unfortunately, we can't always share as much information as parents would like for us to share due to privacy and personnel policy."
While Ledbetter has detractors, he also has ardent supporters. On Saturday, March 24, a meeting was held at the Good Earth Greenhouse and Café in River Forest in support of Ledbetter. A statement of support was released by attorney Tom Cronin, and 45 people signed a document in agreement that Ledbetter should be reinstated as the head baseball coach.
A Wednesday Journal reporter was not allowed to attend the meeting.
"The OPRF baseball families received an email that came as a surprise to everybody, including Chris," Cronin said. "The purpose of the meeting was to set forth two items, the statement of support for Chris and the signatures supporting his reinstatement as head coach.
"We're hoping for a dialogue; we're hoping for an opportunity to address the parents' concerns with OPRF. The hope is to keep Chris as head coach."
As for Parenti, he served as the Huskies' head coach in 2017 when Ledbetter took his leave of absence. He returns for his 12th season overall at OPRF and second year as the Huskies' head coach this spring.
After a relatively slow start in 2017, Parenti guided OPRF to a 24-11 record including a 13-5 record in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division. The Huskies lost 5-2 to Maine West in the Class 4A Niles North Regional semifinals.
"Oak Park has a great tradition going back many years," Parenti said before last season. "I'm hoping to continue what the previous teams have accomplished and hope to continue the tradition."
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