Monday, June 13, 2011

Flunking the test in Richmond Heights

We have been digging into issues in the sleepy but deeply troubled Richmond Heights community for about the past two months. What we have learned — from the public record as well as from numerous conversations with public officials, past and present school district employees, parents of children in the district’s effective but critically-ill school system, other district residents, school volunteers and others with knowledge of the city’s schools — has so shocked us that we have had to work to maintain appropriate distance from the story to be able to tell it fairly.

Most county residents, your scribe among them, likely paid scant attention to the tiny suburb of Richmond Heights before the boys basketball coach became an advance ad earlier this year for the forthcoming Cameron Diaz comedy, "Bad Teacher". Aside from the occasional attention  the town may draw as home to the county airport, or for its Richmond Town Center at Wilson Mills and Richmond Roads, the place is easy to overlook. Tucked underneath the City of Euclid, its large municipal neighbor [the county’s fourth largest city] in the northeast part of the county, it is possible to drive through Richmond Heights without even knowing you have been there. Its roughly 10,000 residents live in a mixture of mostly ranch homes and a few large off-the-beaten path apartment complexes.

The city’s profile was raised in February when the entire high school boys varsity basketball team pushed their parents front and center to demand that the school district remove their coach because of his creation and maintenance of a racially hostile environment directed at them. The coach, Jason Popp, is a health teacher at the high school, and also president of the teachers union.  The all black team and ready to forfeit the balance of their then-undefeated season if the situation was not resolved.

School superintendent Linda T. Hardwick, when confronted by the parents, quickly confirmed the likely veracity of the boys’ complaints — which Popp appears not ever to have denied — and replaced the coach for the balance of the season. 

Hardwick later set forth certain conditions under which Popp might be permitted to return. When Popp, with the none too subtle back channel support of several school board members — even as a new teachers contract was being negotiated — defiantly refused to apologize to the students or to take other steps also required by the superintendent, Hardwick told the board  last month that she would not consider Popp as next year’s coach.

Tonight, according to various published reports, Hardwick intends to recommend Jason Priah as Popp’s successor. Priah has been an assistant basketball coach at conference rival Beachwood for the past four years and was highly recommended. He comes with the endorsement of both the district's athletic director and the high school principal who interviewed him.

It is expected that a Board majority, led by its twenty-six year old president, Josh Kaye, who less than a decade ago was a Richmond Heights High School student, will reject Priah as a candidate. They will likely cite for the record vague legal and technical concerns if they choose to comment at all. But Kaye has regularly signaled that he wants Popp to remain as coach even if, as seems likely, not one boy comes out for the team, and that the majority of the best team in school history transfers out of the district.

It remains a public mystery why Richmond Heights parents and taxpayers, have not descended en masse upon the board of education to demand answers to some very basic questions:

1.     Why isn’t the Board on record condemning the utter unacceptability of any district employee gratuitously demeaning, belittling, and/or insulting any other member of the Richmond Heights school community?

2.     How can the Board justify considering extending a new contract any district employee who has so flaunted federal and state laws, as well as board policies and the union contract, by engaging in such conduct?

3.     How does a majority of the Board reconcile its desire to reinstate Popp as coach for next season, knowing that Popp’s conduct is the basis for one or more of the several complaints that have been filed with the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Education and are currently under investigation?

4.     What kind of legal advice is the Board receiving that would protect the District from heading down the expensive road of defending these claims in court?

5.     What makes Jason Popp more valuable to the District than the children he is charged with nurturing and protecting?

To pose these questions is important, even though the Board will likely duck and cover as best it can. All over Richmond Heights, and indeed throughout Cuyahoga County, these questions should be asked until the truth comes out.

The Board meets at 7PM tonight at district headquarters. Return to this space tomorrow for the skinny on what happens.

No comments: