Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Superintendent Announces Decision on Richmond Heights Basketball Coach

Superintendent Announces Decision on Richmond Heights Basketball Coach
Disarray and Discord Dominate Richmond Heights School Planning Meeting; 
Board Member Fox Outraged

Things are seldom what they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream.”
   Gilbert and Sullivan

Shortly before the start of Monday’s special board meeting, Richmond Heights school superintendent Linda Hardwick placed an envelope on the table where each board member would sit.

The envelopes remained unopened throughout the regular meeting, perhaps because the board members sensed the contents contained political anthrax. After all, last Friday’s Plain Dealer had reported that Hardwick planned to announce her decision about whether to reinstate Jason Popp as high school basketball coach. She had removed him ¾ of the way through the team’s undefeated regular season when team members, supported by their parents, complained about his regular and repeated use of racial slurs. Popp is white; all team members are black.

The published agenda for the meeting called for the board to hear a report on family and civic engagement from Deniese Spencer followed by an executive session to discuss personnel, legal, and other sensitive matters that public bodies are allowed by law to consider outside of public view.

Neither of these events took place. Spencer was not present and the board scratched the executive session before proceeding to hear reports from senior staff about future plans for the district. For the most part, these reports appeared disjointed and not terribly useful, more living room discussion than serious information sharing or planning.

The staff reports came out in informal and more or less random  fashion. Topics discussed were varied, including: summer cleaning; the need for air conditioning at the start of school in August; the status of textbook orders; the need for a foreign language teacher at the elementary level; declining enrollment; progress on a master schedule for the school year; the challenges of special education; transportation issues including the need for new busses; school district collaboration, the insufficiency of the district’s supply of working computers; the oncoming need to name new coaches for the winter sports, whether there will or should be a reconfiguration of the middle school this year or next; the desirability of the district’s regaining its accreditation; the importance of behavior modification training to equip school staff to deal with problematic student behavior; the availability and cost of textbooks; the number of seniors at risk of not graduating; the concern that some students may be gaming the system of supplemental education; and the fact that not a single teacher had signed up to teach summer school.

If the foregoing seems complex and disjointed, it mirrors the impression this reporter had from the meeting. There was precious little planning being done at this “planning session”.

Important information was being disclosed however through this two hour and fifteen minute session. The district treasurer revealed that the annual allocation of funds for the purchase of new computers regularly went unused.  School enrollment is declining at a rate of about 50 students each year. Six nurses who applied for the position of school nurse rejected an employment offer once they learned the salary before one accepted. Her probable start date is July or August.

Almost in passing, spurred by its treasurer, the Board seemed to arrive at a consensus that a levy would have to be placed on the ballot in 2012 to deal with the enormous drop in state support to local school districts in the prospective state budget now being negotiated in Columbus. Members acknowledged a duty to propose the levy while publicly presuming a lack of voter support that would make attempted passage a vain exercise.

Throughout the meeting there was a palpable sense of tension between some members of the board — most notably Bob Fox, but also Aaron Burko — and the school superintendent. This manifested itself both in their respective tones when addressing one another and also in the way they repeatedly interrupted each other to dispute things that had been said or done in the past.

The discussions were most antagonistic around two issues. Fox and Burko were irritated by an alleged lack of accountability on the part of community liaison Deniese Spencer. They asserted that she was hired as a direct report to the Board but seemed to hold the superintendent responsible for Spencer’s failure to keep the Board informed. They were impatient and dismissive of Hardwick’s attempts to read and/or summarize Spencer’s reports to her.

For her part, the superintendent claimed she was being kept out of the loop as to the status of union negotiations. Discussion of this issue should have been staged at the elementary school as she and various members of the Board [I’m sorry, the three white men] traded accusations of irresponsibility. [“It’s your fault.” “No, it’s your fault!” “NO, It’s YOUR FAULT!”]

Before this meeting came to its official end, resident Carlos Slade spoke up from the audience. The father of a 7th grader and uncle of a member of the high school’s basketball team., Slade asked the Board for 5-10 minutes to discuss an important issue. Board president Joshua Kaye attempted to parry the request, citing a legal limitation on the meeting, but Slade was persistent and would not be denied. Kaye then  proposed that if Slade would be patient, the entire board would remain after the meeting was adjourned to hear his question. Slade consented to this request and the meeting continued until 9:15PM as reported above.

During the unofficial continuation of the meeting, Slade directed his inquiry to the superintendent regarding the unresolved status of coach Popp’s suspension and possible reinstatement as basketball coach. Slade said the delay was doing much harm to the district, causing many parents to make plans to enroll their children outside of the district for the next school year.

Hardwick replied by saying she had made a decision, one she believed was in the best interests of the children, and that she had conveyed that decision to board members by letter.

As board members then recognized, opened and read the contents of the envelope in front of each [Fox did not open his letter, saying he would not be able to keep his composure if he read the letter — he lost it anyway!], Hardwick said she would not accept the application from Jason Popp to coach the boys basketball team next year.

The meeting broke up at this point with several board members crying foul. Aaron Burko said that Hardwick’s public statement subjected the district to potential legal liability and tossed out a likely cost of 20 to 30 thousand dollars. Fox did not read the letter but nevertheless verged towards apoplexy.

* This post to be continued. Video of parts of the meeting including the superintendent’s statement will be posted, hopefully within 24 hours. Stay tuned.


Kenneth T. Embry said...

Very interesting reading. It is amazing that that those who are elected to represent the interests of their constituency find ever more clever ways of representing themselves or conducting themselves in such infantile ways that they are rendered impotent.

Richard said...


Anonymous said...

Since nothing but the facts were printed here for the most part, I am interested in knowing what your personal opinion is on Mr. Popp not being reinstated by the superintendent. I've heard a lot of outcry on how he interacted with the students which is why he has come to everyones' attention from the start, but from prior readings on this story I have come to the conclusion that all were pretty much happy with the thought of "sensitivity training" as the answer to the problem.
I live in Richmond Heights and my council member sent me your link because her and I have discussed this subject when it became public knowledge months ago.

Tom said...

Glad it was you and not me there. Sounds painful, in more ways than one. I suspect there will be more to the story!

Tim Ferris said...

Can't wait for the video at 11. Like the apoplectic verging. And Popp is Kopp, right?

Richard said...

@ Tim: Still working on the video. I have been sidetracked because there is so much more to this story. I will be posting over the weekend. And thanks for pointing out the typo [since corrected.]

@Tom:There has always been more to this story than merely a coach's inappropriate language. It belongs on the front page and not the sports page and will get there sooner or later.

@ Anonymous:I don't know what else you have read about this but it does not appear to me there was ever a consensus that "sensitivity training" was sufficient.

As I noted in my comments to Tim & tom, the issues are much larger than Mr. Popp. There are systemic and structural concerns here. Mr. Popp is just a canary in the mine. Please stay tuned.