High school coaches in New Jersey could get longer contracts and more employment protections under a new measure being considered by the state Legislature. But some worry that these changes could keep unfit coaches on the field.
Over the past few years, more than 15 high school coaches have claimed they were forced out of their positions and are struggling to find coaching jobs in the state because of what they say are retaliatory actions by disgruntled parents and school officials. Some of these individuals boast impressive winning records and Hall of Fame championships.
“The main thing we’re looking for is a true due process to protect individuals,” said John Fiori, head football coach at Montclair High School and president of the New Jersey Football Coaches Association.
The Assembly Education committee on Monday released a bill (A-5007) that would allow public high school coaches who are also tenured employees of the school district to enter into two- and three-year contracts with their boards of education — an upgrade from their current one-year contracts. Head coaches would be eligible for three-year contracts; assistant coaches would enter into two-year contracts.
The legislation would also mandate school districts notify a coach in writing 90 days before the end of their contract if they will not be reappointed. Further, a coach may be fired or receive a pay cut “only for just cause and may not be dismissed for arbitrary or capricious reasons.” If a coach is fired because of a poor annual evaluation, that coach must be given one year to “correct and overcome any identified deficiencies with appropriate district support.”
Coaches under fire
Critics of the current contract for high school coaches have alleged that the annual renewal cycle has made these professionals vulnerable to attacks from angry parents and school board members who invoke the state’s landmark anti-bullying and anti-harassment laws to bring complaints against coaches for things like not giving students the same amount of playing time, assigning players to positions other than the ones they prefer, and other “offenses.”
Lou Racioppe, who spent 20 years as Verona High School’s head football coach before being fired in 2017, attempted to sue the district after he was placed on administrative leave in the middle of the football season. The district launched a controversial investigation into Racioppe after receiving parent complaints about his coaching methods. Racioppe testified to the committee that he felt his suspension was politically motivated and that his reputation has been irreparably damaged.
“There were no criminal files against me, it was something that had to do with what happened on the football field. Coincidentally, the superintendent’s son was on the team. Coincidentally the superintendent’s son does not play, he was not a starter,” Raccioppe said. Verona School Board President John Quattrocchi said in a 2017 statement that superintendent Rui Dionisio’s role was to “provide guidance” during the investigation process but was not involved directly in it.
Racioppe told lawmakers that since his dismissal from Verona, he has struggled to find work coaching football or baseball and cannot even get an interview at many New Jersey schools.
“Being a Hall of Fame coach with four state championships and seven conference championships on my resume, I would’ve been a prime candidate to get these jobs …. Basically my coaching career is over.”
The bill was introduced by Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic) in the wake of a New Jersey Advance Media investigation that found the state’s landmark anti-harassment, intimidation and bullying law (HIB) was being used against veteran coaches. Wimberly has spent nearly three decades as a high school sports coach and noted this issue was personal but not restricted to New Jersey.
“You have hall-of-fame coaches who have no criminal charges, no legal charges against them, they’re tenured in their school districts and yet they are not able to coach there or anywhere else,” he said. “It’s a problem.”
Using anti-bullying law as ‘sword’
New Jersey’s HIB law — one of the strongest in the country — lays out strict procedures for how schools should investigate reported complaints and provides guidance for districts to set up anti-bullying programs and required training for school employees. It was imbued with new urgency following the 2010 suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi who had been a victim of vicious online bullying and it was given teeth by setting timelines and mandating specific steps schools are required to take during investigations.
Now, eight years after its passage, those testifying on Monday questioned whether the law was ever intended to extend to adults. In November 2018, the state board of education adopted updated regulations that asserted that adults can indeed be investigated under the HIB law.
Steven Farsiou, a lawyer in Flemington and a coach at North Hunterdon High School, said since 2011, his firm has specialized in representing coaches accused of bullying under the HIB law. He reported he has taken approximately 15 of these cases but has also settled or helped coaches work through seven to 10 other cases without going to court.
“These are gentlemen who are Hall of Fame coaches who have changed people’s lives,” he said. “What I’m seeing drastically is although this harassment intimidation and bullying law was intended for the best purposes … it’s being used as a sword by administrators and by parents.”
Farsiou noted in specific cases that have crossed his desk, “you have parents saying ‘my son’s not starting’ or ‘my son was batting sixth and he should’ve batted first’ … and then you have administrators getting pressured by these parents.”
While some of the complaints Farsiou reported may seem minor in relation to the consequences of being blackballed from coaching, those testifying on Monday acknowledged the impact these coaches can have on players’ lives: Getting more playing time or making the varsity team can lead to scholarships, while being benched can hurt a kid’s chances of getting into a school.
Debra Bradley, director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association (NJPSA), testified that her organization agrees with the spirit of the bill and the need for due process for coaches accused of bullying but offered some pushback on the idea of three-year contracts.
“The annual contract-renewal system … is responsive to the changing needs in the schools and districts,” she said. “This legislation would change all of that by providing tenured employees … with an automatic three-year or two-year contract based upon their title. This is regardless of their job performance in that role or any showing of coaching proficiency at the start of the contract term and that’s something that raises some concerns to us.”
The primary issue for NJPSA members, Bradley said, is that the contract provisions for that long a period “will limit their ability to respond if necessary to remove a coach whose behavior may endanger students through misconduct, unsafe practices, or coaching techniques, or if they engage in some form of inappropriate behavior towards students.”
But Wimberly pushed back against that assertion. He said he’s proud of the bill and is confident it will pass when it finds a companion bill in the Senate and eventually may head to the full floor for a vote.
“If you’re a bad coach you can get fired still. It’s no different than a tenured teacher,” he said, noting that there are other mechanisms and school policies in place to protect students from abusive coaches. “We’re not looking for anything special that says we’re going to protect them at all costs. We’re going to protect them for having due process.”