Bill Providing NJ High School Coaches With Multi-Year Contracts Gains Momentum

A state legislator whose bill would provide multi-year contracts for public high school coaches and afford those facing nonrenewal with an unprecedented avenue for appeal is “very optimistic” his proposal will become law.

Attorney Steve Farsiou, who has represented more than a dozen terminated scholastic coaches in civil lawsuits against New Jersey school districts over the last decade, believes the vast majority, if not all, of his clients would never have lost their jobs had the legislation of Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Bergen/Passaic, been on the books years ago.

Critics of the legislation believe it may impede a school district’s ability, when necessary, to remove coaches, all of which are currently employed in New Jersey under one-year renewable contracts, and burden local taxpayers with additional costs.

The Assembly Education Committee unanimously advanced Wimberly’s legislation last month in a 10-0 vote with one abstention.

Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, who recently introduced a companion bill, said he hopes the Senate Education Committee will conduct a hearing this fall on the legislation with a similarly favorable outcome, enabling it to head to the full statehouse floor for a vote.

“I’m very optimistic,” Wimberly, who is also the head football coach at Hackensack High School, said of his belief that Gov. Phil Murphy will sign the legislation into law in time for it to take effect beginning in the 2020-21 academic year.

“I think it’s a major protection for coaches when it comes to being unjustly fired,” Wimberly said. “In many cases, guys are being fired because they didn’t play a school board member’s child, or a (student-athlete) didn’t play a position they wanted to play, so you have parents go to the school board and make an issue out of it.

“But let’s also make it clear. If you do something that’s out of character that blatantly gives you grounds for being fired, you would still be terminated. That’s not the protection we are looking for. We are trying to protect good guys.”

Wimberly said he believes too many good coaches, including some hall of fame mentors, have been removed for “arbitrary, capricious, or unlawful reasons,” including unproved allegations of bullying.

'Epidemic in New Jersey'

“We have an epidemic going on in New Jersey, and that epidemic is people using the HIB (Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying) law as a sword and not for the right purposes,” said Farsiou, who is a partner in the Flemington-based law firm of Trinity & Farsiou. “Attacking head coaches is No. 1 at the top of that list.”

Sen. Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex, who helped author the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, which is widely regarded as the nation’s strongest policy of its kind, said he believes some “innocent coaches” may have lost their positions as an unintended consequence of the law. 

For that reason, Diegnan said he supports the purpose of the legislation Wimberly and Singleton introduced, which includes an appeal process for coaches facing nonrenewal.

“I think the purpose of this bill, which I support, is to assure due process, and that’s to everybody’s benefit,” Diegnan said. “Obviously, the purpose (of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act), and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do in New Jersey, is to bend over backwards to protect kids from bullying. We want to identify the true culprits and make sure they are dealt with accordingly. But on the other hand, we don’t want innocent coaches who are trying to do the right thing to also be swept up by a false accusation. The purpose of this bill is something that is well intended and is something that we should all support.”

Frank Belluscio, director of communications for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the NJSBA appreciates the legislation’s intent but that it must be balanced with a board of education’s responsibility to make personnel decisions based on educational needs, financial capacity and operational considerations.

“Boards of education, along with their superintendents and other supervisory staff, must maintain the ability to make annual adjustments to staffing,” Belluscio said. “It should also be noted that existing laws and regulations, along with collective bargaining agreements, provide all employees with protection against unjust termination.”

Wimberly and Singleton, however, both said existing laws and regulations don’t go far enough to protect coaches.

Contracts for coaches

Under their legislation:

  • Head coaches must receive three-year contracts and assistant coaches must receive two year-contracts, at the conclusion of which the coaches will be deemed reappointed for their respective terms unless they receive written notification from the school board 90 days before expiration of their contracts that they will not be reappointed at the end of the term.
  • Coaches may be dismissed during the term of a contract only for just cause.
  • Coaches who are also tenured employees of a school district must be afforded one year to correct and overcome any identified deficiencies with appropriate district support if their dismissal is predicated upon a poor annual coaching evaluation.
  • Dismissed coaches are entitled to request a hearing in executive session with legal representation during which they can present witnesses and cross examine any school officials who participated in making the decision impacting their employment with all testimony taken under oath with a court reporter present at the expense of the school district.
  • The school board must issue a written decision to affirm, reject, or modify the decision of the school district officials to non-renew, which coaches may appeal to the state commissioner of education.

“I think the hearing piece is one of, it not the most, essential component,” Singleton said of the legislation. “All we are asking for is let there be a process. I say that because there are situations where folks are deemed to be at-will employees and just removed without having a real understanding as to why it happened. Subsequent to that, when an individual tries to move on to secure another position, there is this whisper campaign as to what may have happened, what may have caused the coach to no longer be at the school, and that’s not fair. You can never defend yourself against ghosts.”

Farsiou said the scenario which Singleton paints is exactly what several of his clients, including former Hunterdon Central High School wrestling coach Steve Gibble and former Cedar Grove High School football coach Ed Sadloch, who are both hall of fame mentors, have endured.

Coaching controversy

Controversy surrounding the 2017 ouster of former Ramsey High School ice hockey coach Dean Portas and former Verona High School football coach Louis Racioppe, which garnered statewide attention, shined a spotlight on the issue of nonrenewal.

Many in the Ramsey ice hockey program speculated school board president Tony Gasparovich instigated Portas’ removal. Gasparovich's son abruptly quit the hockey team in January 2017. Shortly after, the sophomore sent a text message advising teammates of a potential coaching change for the following academic year. Portas said Gasparovich later complained to him about his son's playing time and position on the depth chart. Gasparovich dismissed the accusation he had anything to do with Portas' contract not being renewed. Facing public pressure, Gasparovich stepped down as the board’s president in June 2017 but remained on the board as a regular member while welcoming an ethics investigation into the allegations against him.

Racioppe, a New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame mentor who was let go in 2017 after 20 years at Verona, filed suit against the school district for unlawful termination. Among the accusations Racioppe leveled in his claim is that Superintendent Rui Dionisio had “a personal vendetta” against him. The Board of Education placed Racioppe on administrative leave following undisclosed allegations in the aftermath of a midseason loss to Glen Ridge. The board did not renew his contract after the season. According to the administration, more than 60 percent of the Verona football players, who were surveyed during an investigation, observed or experienced face-mask grabbing or other alleged misconduct by Racioppe or his assistants. Racioppe said he "didn't do anything wrong" and wants his name cleared. 

“Schools have had an easy time for years not bringing coaches back, but now I think the coaches are starting to fight back,” said Farsiou. “You’re seeing coaches say, ‘I’m not going to take this anymore and I’m going to pursue my rights.’ A bunch of coaches are fighting back by filing lawsuits, filing petitions with the (state) commissioner of education.”

A member of the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Gibble was removed from his coaching position after 22 seasons following a 2014 bullying allegation, of which he was later cleared.

Though Gibble did not lose his tenured position as a social studies teacher at the high school, he has not since been able to find a job as a coach, according to Farsiou, who has filed a lawsuit on Gibble’s behalf against the school district.

The claim lists more than a dozen counts against the defendants including violation of civil rights, civil conspiracy, age discrimination, malicious use of process and defamation.

'Put through hell'

"He's been blackballed," said Farsiou, a coach himself who has been a volunteer varsity baseball assistant at North Hunterdon High School for six years and is in his 12th season as manager of the Whitehouse Post 284 American Legion baseball team.

"How would you like it if someone labelled you as a bully?” Farsiou asked. "He's been put through hell.”

In November, the Hunterdon Central school board voted 7-2 to reject an allegation by former Superintendent of Schools Christine Steffner that Gibble, a 1980 Hunterdon Central graduate who compiled a 348-119 record as the high school’s head coach, committed an act of bullying during a summer wrestling camp at Rutgers University five years ago.

The vote followed a two-day hearing that stemmed from an Appellate Court decision upholding a state Office of Administrative Law ruling, which concluded Gibble, who was never afforded a hearing on the bullying charge, should have received one.

Stuart Green, founder and director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, expressed concern that the legislation of Wimberly and Singleton does not do enough to ensure protections for student-athletes.

“I’m an advocate, so for me, the lens through which I look at all things is whether it’s helpful to those who are most vulnerable,” Green said. “Occasionally, some situations arise in which kids are not treated justly in the context of school sports, and when a child or parent raises these issues of not being treated fairly, or worse, of being harmed, there’s an obligation on the part of educators to not only look at the incident that has or hasn’t occurred, but to use that incident as a spur to look more broadly at the way sports are run.

“Schools have an obligation to look at that and to see whether the culture and climate of youth sports at the school have any areas that need strengthening in terms of treating kids fairly and not harming kids. As an advocate, a law that strengthens protection and privileges for educators who run things in school is not the right direction to go in. What needs strengthening and more protections and support are things that strengthen and support vulnerable youth and families."

'Legislation not required'

Speaking as an individual and not on behalf of any boards he represents or has represented, Sayreville Board of Education President Kevin Ciak, who is past president of the National School Boards Association and past president of the New Jersey School Boards Association, raised some issues with the legislation as it is currently written.

“I don’t see the bill as accomplishing its intended goal of coaching stability as much as I see it simply adding additional costs to New Jersey’s already overburdened local property taxpayers,” Ciak said.

“Furthermore, the scope of concern for the bill is solely focused on coaches. Why is this not a discussion for the National Honor Society advisor, theater advisor, marching band advisor, choral director, or FBLA advisor, all of whom have the same influence over students?

“School Boards are ultimately responsible and authorized to ensure educational stability in all of their educational program offerings. Elected school board members are held accountable for this outcome at annual elections. Additional legislation is not required to accomplish this goal.”

Ciak said he believed if the bill were to become law, depending upon the remaining length of the contract and the salary of the coach, school districts may simply opt to pay out the remaining balance of the contract of a coach they don't want to renew.

“Legal fees often run around $175 an hour, so it doesn’t make sense for a school board to invest 100 hours in defending its position to move in another direction for the final year of a contract for a coach who makes $9,000 per year,” he said. “The end result may be an increased cost to the taxpayer without any additional stability in the athletic program.”

Farsiou said he believed if such buyouts were not mutually agreed upon, the school district could make itself vulnerable to costly litigation with a coach filing an action for reinstatement. Farsiou said he believes in the absence of Wimberly and Singleton’s bill becoming law, school districts will see an increase in coaches filing lawsuits, such as those he has filed on behalf of more than a dozen clients, which he estimates have cost school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Ciak also noted the bill, as currently written, does not afford the coach an opportunity to have a hearing in public session, if he or she so desired.

“It is unclear if this provision would supersede the longstanding court’s Rice vs. Union County Regional Board of Education decision, which grants school employees the right to notice any time a Board of Education discusses circumstances which may adversely affect their employment in the district in closed session and also the right to have those discussions held in public,” Ciak said.

Appeal process for coaches

Ciak said his school district already has a mechanism in place for coaches to appeal nonrenewal, that being a Donaldson appearance.

“While I’m not aware of any case law mandating Sayreville’s approach," Ciak explained, "the approach treats our coaches as professionals recognizing that the work they do as a coach has the same educational relevance as the work they do in the classroom.”

Named after the 1974 school law case of teacher Mary Donaldson against the North Wildwood Board of Education, in which New Jersey’s Supreme Court first recognized the right of public school educators to contest their termination, the statute states: “An officer or employee whose employment contract is not renewed shall have the right to a written statement of reasons for nonrenewal … and to an informal appearance before the board” for the purpose of permitting “the staff member to convince the members of the board to offer reemployment.”

Ciak recognizes the legislation of Wimberly and Singleton affords coaches an opportunity to ask questions of the school board and the administration, which is not a right afforded in a Donaldson appearance, where an employee is solely permitted to present evidence as to why his or her contract should be renewed.

“In Sayreville, we have considered that the provisions of (the Donaldson appearance statute) apply to coaches because our coaches are employees/teaching staff members who are contracted for one set salary to teach and an additional salary to coach and not every teaching staff member is employed as a coach,” Ciak said. “As a result, if a coach is nonrenewed but still continues to be employed as a teaching staff member, we would consider that individual in his or her coaching capacity to be an ‘employee whose employment contract is not renewed,’ and apply the provisions of the statute.

Wimberly said he expects to meet with members of the New Jersey School Boards Association before the end of the summer to discuss his legislation.

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