Friday, March 02, 2012
BULLETIN: Former Basketball Coach Jason Popp Suspended from Richmond Hts Schools
In a move that was both long overdue and absolutely appropriate, Jason Popp was suddenly placed on administrative leave with pay this week by the Richmond Heights School District.
The move was nonetheless startling and possibly troubling in terms of its timing.
Popp is president of the teacher’s union [the Richmond Heights Teachers Association] and teaches physical education at the high school. He was removed as head coach of the boys basketball team in February 2011 when the team threatened to boycott its season because of his repeated verbal and psychological abuse replete with racial epithets.
Timing, manner of Popp suspension
The timing of the suspension is puzzling. The school board met on Monday with the apparent intent to act on the recommendation of interim superintendent Robert Moore to fire interim high school principal Timothy Pingle. Emerging after a three-hour executive session attended by board attorney Christopher Williams of Pebble and Wagoner, the board did not vote for Pingle’s immediate termination pursuant to the simple motion attached to the agenda.
Instead, the board voted 4-0 [Kaye was in San Francisco on business] “to consider the termination” of Pingle and, based on a lengthy bill of particulars, found that he should be immediately suspended without pay. Pingle had been on administrative leave without pay since early December.
After the meeting, board president Linda Pliodzinskas told reporters that immediate termination was deferred because the board “wanted to make sure all its ’i’s were dotted and its ‘t’s were crossed.”
It is not altogether clear that the Board has crossed its ’i’s and dotted its ‘t’s with respect to Popp. For one, there does not appear to have been a public vote on the suspension. Nor is it clear that Popp was given due process regarding his suspension.
Counsel for the Board failed to respond to email and phone calls seeking comment.
Pressure building on the District
Popp’s removal as basketball coach brought to the surface tensions and anxieties that have long been building within the school system. Conflicts within and among virtually every group of stakeholders in the system — school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, students, and taxpayers — have long been present in the district but now appear exacerbated in the wake of the lingering Popp affair. Consultants hired by the Board last year submitted a report finding "disconnections among stakeholders". While the findings have not yet been discussed publicly by the Board, the Real Deal obtained a copy through a public records request.
Three months after Popp’s initial removal as coach, Superintendent Hardwick defied a school board majority by making the removal permanent, and essentially forced the board to hire another coach for this current season. This development punctuated what had been a behind the scenes battle, led by board president Joshua Kaye, to reinstate Popp without any disciplinary record.
At the time of the Popp affair, Kaye had already been maneuvering for more than six months to fire Hardwick herself. Although the novice superintendent had some early missteps, even a first time observer of the district could see that much of the animosity had a personal, if not a racial, aspect.
If Popp’s suspension smacks of being hurried, the Board’s haste may be related to actions by one or more of the governmental agencies that have been investigating the district over the past year. The Ohio Civil Rights Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Education have all been investigating the environment of Richmond Heights Local Schools relative to both students and employees. No findings have been released although the findings are expected to weigh heavily on certain individual board members as well as particular employees.