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District, Board Interference With Coaching Methods Discussed at BOE

On Nov. 4, the Levittown Public School District’s Board of Education held one of its regular public meetings at the Levittown Memorial Education Center.

Despite taking place on the same night as the New York Yankees’ World Series triumph, the meeting drew a sizable turnout. The gathering was called to order by Board Vice President Michael Pappas, who served in place of the absent Board President Dan Bornstein. Bornstein was unable to attend the meeting at its outset, but arrived later on and was present during its final stages.

The first issue that was discussed at the meeting was the dismissal of students from Gardiners Avenue Elementary School. The board had received complaints at two prior meetings that the dismissal process at Gardiners Avenue had been chaotic and poorly managed, potentially exposing the students to a variety of dangers. The turmoil had been attributed to a sharp increase in the number of students either walking home from school or waiting for their parents to pick them up – the result of a voter-approved referendum that altered the transportation mileage requirements in the district to make fewer children eligible for bus transportation as part of recent budget cuts. Assistant Superintendent Debbie Rifkin reported that many changes have since been made to dismissal procedures and the process now appears to be much safer and more orderly.

Pappas alluded to a discussion at a prior meeting in which a district resident cited a quote that she attributed to him, which stated that dismissal from Gardiners Avenue “went off without a hitch” on the opening day of the school year. Pappas denied having ever previously made that statement; but now, in regard to the changes to dismissal procedures, he said: “I was there [at Gardiners Avenue] today, and it went off without a hitch. It was perfect today.”

Superintendent Dr. Herman A. Sirois then briefly addressed the recent passing of Halloween and its effects on the district.

“Saturday Halloween terrifies all of us,” he quipped, “but it appears to have gone relatively safe.”

He noted that there were no reports of vandalism or other serious crimes on or around school grounds.

After the board had finished discussing these matters, the meeting entered its Public Be Heard phase, in which audience members who had signed up in advance were granted opportunities to speak before the board.

The most prevalent issue that was raised by speakers was with regard to the alleged “micro-managing” of the district’s sports coaches. A number of speakers claimed that the board had been unnecessarily and counterproductively interfering in the work of coaches and thereby restricting the progress and success of the district’s sports teams. This issue had been raised by several speakers at a previous meeting, but the board denied having any excessive involvement in coaches’ work and expressed general confusion over what exactly these accusations pertained to. This time, the matter was explained and discussed at far greater length.

The session opened with an ensemble of student-athletes gathering before the board to address the coaching issue. One of them, speaking on behalf of the rest, called on the board to stop interfering in the work of coaches, claiming that such meddling could have ramifications beyond just the playing field.

“Some of us are working towards obtaining scholarships for college,” he said. “It is so very important that our coaches are allowed to continue leading us in a competitive way. The world is competitive, as in high school and college sports. As students, we rely on our coaches to prepare us for college [base]ball. You need to allow us to continue on this path without interference and pressure from board of ed members.” The speaker also noted, “Our coaches have proven themselves to be honorable, respectful, and most caring individuals who have led us to many victories. What more can we ask for in a coach?”

After the students had finished their address, another speaker presented a petition to the board with over 170 signatures requesting that the board refrain from interjecting itself into coaching matters. He claimed that the board’s interference had “watered down” the “competitive edge” of the district’s sports teams.

He told the board, “You have been elected to serve this community as a whole. However, many of your actions have been very self-serving and not for the greater good.”

Specifically, he accused the board of interfering in the allocation of playing time to athletes. He referred to the district’s official Athletic Handbook, which states that playing time “is never guaranteed,” “is non-negotiable,” and “is left to the discretion of the coach.”

 “Playing time is clearly defined in the handbook for JV and varsity [teams],” the speaker said. “It is not up for discussion.”

During subsequent discussions, several audience members alluded that a specific board member may have acted independently to influence coaches’ decisions. Dr. Sirois reminded the audience that the board itself had not acted in any official capacity on this matter, and that no single board member acting on his or her own has the authority to dictate or influence district policies. Board member Gina Interdonato reinforced this statement.

“Remember that there are seven people that make up a board,” she told the audience. “Any of us could be standing on a field somewhere and say something; but they’re speaking only for themselves. This board of education can only act with a vote of seven. That’s the only way this works. There is no other way an individual can go out there and tell you anything.”

Interdonato also said that the board had scheduled a meeting with the district coaches on Nov. 9 and had hoped to resolve this matter to the satisfaction of everyone involved. She also told the athletes present in the audience that the board does wholeheartedly support their efforts.

Pappas also noted that he had personally reviewed all e-mail correspondence among athletic administrators and said he had discovered an “inference by someone” in those messages that he believed revealed the source of this problem.

“I see where it points to,” he said, “and that bothers me.”

He said the issue on the whole represented a “breakdown somewhere at the administration level” which needed to be “rooted out.” Neither Pappas nor anyone else on the board made any specific reference to any particular board members or district employees during this discussion.

Later, during the Public Be Heard session, the issue of the dismissal of students from Gardiners Avenue was also raised again. While one speaker acknowledged that the dismissal process itself had indeed improved, she claimed that traffic conditions in and around the school remained exceptionally dangerous for the children.

“It is so dangerous,” she said, “I can count at least 10 times in the past two weeks where me, the crossing guard, and both my children almost got hit [by a car].”

She claimed that the use of only a single exit for buses and an abundance of parked vehicles on the roadside were exacerbating an already troublesome situation.

“It’s just a matter of time before someone gets hit there,” she warned the board, “and believe me, if it’s my kid, you’re going to hear bloody war! Something needs to be done.”

She also complained that other parents had been parking their vehicles in front of her own driveway and had prevented contractors she had hired from paving it.

“That’s not fair to me as a resident,” she said. “I can’t schedule my work done on my house around when parents are going to park their cars.”

The speaker noted that she had reported these problems to the police, but said they had not been diligent in responding to her complaints. Dr. Sirois told her that the district had been in contact with the police department and local legislators urging them to place more crossing guards in front of Gardiners Avenue; however, he noted that the district did not have the authority to assign its own staff members to direct traffic. Rifkin also said that the administration was currently in the process of reviewing these matters to see what courses of action could be taken to resolve them.

Another speaker warned the board of a coming “taxpayer revolt” from local residents.

“I hope the board took cognizance of the results of this past election, both out of state and local,” he said ominously.

Following the Public be Heard session, the board discussed various administrative matters. It voted to approve or reject a number of bids, and it denoted specific textbooks and library books used by the district as being “obsolete” and granted permission for them to be donated or discarded. It also approved a contract with Hofstra University that granted license to the district to stage upcoming high school graduation ceremonies on the university grounds. The board also discussed the district’s upcoming Senior Citizens’ Prom, which is currently scheduled for May 14, 2010, and agreed to hire district employee Ron Bracco and his Ron James Orchestra to provide musical entertainment for the event. The board also approved the appointment of Lise Svenson to the Committees on Special Education and Preschool Special Education and accepted the gift of a park bench with a plaque reading “In Memory of Katie Jo Barbaro,” which will be placed at Northside Elementary School, in honor of a student who passed away earlier this year.