Do coaches have conflicts of interest?

South Side High School soccer parents raise concerns

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Under a proposed policy, Rockville Centre School District coaches would no longer be allowed to give private instruction to members of their teams for pay. The practice, school officials said, creates potential conflicts of interest. Previous policy barred teachers from providing paid tutoring to current students, but not coaches and their players.
Calls for the policy change came from parents of the South Side High School girls’ soccer team, a longtime powerhouse that has produced some of the top players in the country. “There were certain issues that were brought to the attention of the board regarding some aspects of our district’s athletic program and, in particular, the girls’ high school soccer program,” Board of Education President Tara Hackett said, reading from a prepared statement at last week’s meeting. “We’ve been working on these and other questions through a fact-finding process. “Specifically,” Hackett continued, “the school district is reviewing amendments to the policy relative to a staff member conducting off-season training with student athletes, as well as outside coaching of teams where our student athletes may be participants.” Additionally, she said, the board asked the district superintendent to “review and im-prove certain procedures” regarding team selection “to make sure the method used does not cause embarrassment” and due-process rights are better communicated to student-athletes. The board welcomes comments on policy proposals, Hackett said, but it would not entertain questions on specific personnel, because that would violate state law. Chris Powers, the district’s attorney, was on hand to discuss policy revisions. “Now we have a choice to make, and I really think the right choice for everyone involved in this is for us to move forward,” Hackett said, “and when I say we want to move forward, I hope you understand, we’re not looking to sweep the past under the rug. We take what we’ve learned and we bring it with us.” The proposed policy is in the earliest stage of the revision process, and as it now stands, applies to both tutors and coaches. “The intention of the original policy was good, but had gray areas,” Hackett said. “I think the real goal of this policy . . . is that we will not have teachers who are tutoring their students outside, and we will not have coaches who are privately training those students on the outside.” The policy would also: • Require teachers and coaches who provide paid instruction to students in school to notify the principal in writing. • Prohibit any teacher or coach who does provide such instruction from doing so on school grounds. • Bar teachers and coaches from soliciting students for private instruction during school hours or through the school’s communications network. The policy was last revised in 2012, Powers said. “Knowing what has happened here recently, I think you do need revisions,” he said. “The most important thing about policy is that you must be clear. I think you tried to accomplish a lot on the original policy, and you need to break it down further.” Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said the administration has looked into who might be affected under the policy change, and whether any current staff members are coaching or training current members of their teams. “There are a number of networks that exist for various different sports” outside of the school, Johnson said, referring to youth leagues and travel teams. “The problem we have is, how far back do we look?” Because children often join sports leagues at a young age, it would be difficult to prohibit staff from coaching high school student-athletes whom they may have worked with before. The other suggestion, Johnson said, is to prohibit coaching or training any village resident to avoid a future conflict of interest — although that might not eliminate the problem. “We have to be very careful about managing and controlling that network,” Johnson said, noting that children who may have worked with a coach while living elsewhere could move into the district in high school. “It’s far more complicated than we originally thought.”  Trustee Liz Dion and Hackett said that one of the key points that needs to be addressed is the team selection process. “It’s one thing to have a history with someone, but we really are trying to limit that person’s influence on selecting,” Hackett said. “The person should not be participating in the tryout and should be alerting someone that there is a connection so they can recuse themselves.” The original policy, Dion said, was written with the music program in mind. In music, the district went to a blind selection process for tryouts, in which the ensemble’s conductor can hear, but not see, a student perform during an audition. In sports, that would be impossible. During the public comment session, parent Dana Greenberg suggested changes to the policy. She said she thought coaches should be allowed to supplement their income, though perhaps the coaching should take place farther from the school. “I would suggest coaches be told that if they’re going to coach privately, it has to be outside of a certain radius,” Greenberg said. “That would dramatically decrease the likelihood that a coach would be privately training somebody who would then be a part of their school.” She also suggested bringing in an independent panel for sports tryouts. “Because there’s a certain amount of mistrust on behalf of community members because of things that have gone on, I think it would help to gain some of that trust back and help to level the playing field.”  “This is really simple,” said parent Salvatore Romanello. “If you’re a teacher in this district and you derive income from outside training, you should not coach a team in that sport, period. That’s all you have to do, and it’s solved.” Romanello disagreed with the idea of an outside panel. “Coaches should be able to take whoever they want,” he said. “What you need to do is get rid of the appearance of impropriety.” Karen Parker, president of the Booster Club, said that her daughter, who has since graduated, played on the South Side High School varsity soccer team as well as travel teams. “From my experience,” she said, “there is no inherent conflict of interest with a travel team coach and their players. My frustration is that the perception in the community was based on a narrative that was driven by half-truths and, in many cases, outright lies.” Parker added, “You’re going to make it very difficult for anyone other than a teacher in this building to be one of our coaches, and if you’re restricting so tightly their ability to coach on an outside travel team, you’re eliminating some really qualified candidates for coaching positions at our school.”  The proposed policy changes will be discussed further at the Dec. 11 board meeting, at South Side High School, at 7:30 p.m.