Baron sues Voorheesville to be reinstated as girls’ basketball coach

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Robert Baron, shown here coaching the Voorheesville girls’ varsity basketball team, is suing the district that once employed him. Claiming he was fraudulently induced to tender his resignation as coach, Baron is seeking reinstatement, an award for lost wages and for damages to his reputation.

VOORHEESVILLE — Former Voorheesville Varsity Girls’ Basketball Coach Robert Baron has filed suit against the Voorheesville Central School District, seeking a judgement declaring that the district fraudulently induced him to tender his resignation as coach; he is also seeking reinstatement as coach and an award for lost wages, and for damages to his reputation, according to a lawsuit filed on March 6, with the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Albany County.

Baron’s resignation was unanimously accepted by a quorum of the Voorheesville Board of Education at an early-morning special meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. The resignation was effective Friday, Nov. 17, the day after an article appeared in The Enterprise that said: “In response to community concerns about girls’ basketball coach, Robert Baron, The Enterprise left many phone messages for Baron and for Voorheesville athletic director, Joseph Sapienza but received no response.”

Enterprise stories, letters to the editor, and an editorial are cited in the suit and included as exhibits.

The school board appointed Andrew Karins, the girls’ junior-varsity coach, as head coach and the team just completed a season that took it as far as regional finals, having won its 11th sectional title — a powerhouse that was developed under Baron’s 10-year stint as head coach.

The suit alleges that there was a “retaliatory scheme” to oust Baron because one of the 10 players on the team was not allowed to play in a game — following team rules for missed practices —and might not be selected as captain.

The suit also alleges procedural failures, claiming that the Voorheesville School District has a pattern of terminating coaches after age 60. Baron was 67 at the time of his resignation. Further, the suit alleges that the district preferred a teacher to have the coaching position, which it calls “unfair favoritism.”

Baron, who is licensed by the state as a coach, was denied a grievance process, the 27-page complaint says, stating that, historically, the district “has always included its coaches” under the collective-bargaining agreement.

The complaint says that the performance evaluations that the district is required to submit to the State Education Department as a component of a coaching license had formerly been reviewed by Baron prior to filing.

The complaint further states that Baron has been a prominent member of the Voorheesville community for many years — “a successful businessperson” and former president of the Voorheesville School Board — but the events around his resignation have done irreparable harm to his reputation.

Also named in the suit are the Board of Education of the Voorheesville Central School District; the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association; Kathleen Fiero, in her capacity as president of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association; and New York State United Teachers.

Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT, said that Baron is not now, nor has he even been, a member of NYSUT, and the union has no duty to represent someone who is not a member. The union will be filing a motion to have NYSUT dismissed from the suit.

The school district’s superintendent, Brian Hunt; Doreen Saia, the board of education president; and Kathleen Fiero declined to comment. Baron could not be reached.

Baron is being represented by Couch White, LLP.

Floodgates open

Part of the story came out at a Dec. 11, school board meeting, where Robert Burns, a friend of Baron, described the situation that eventually led to Baron’s resignation. Burns said that Baron checked the pre-season availability of his team members and adjusted practice start times to accommodate as many girls as he could.

The players, Burns said, indicated they had no conflicts.

Burns said, after a time for practice was decided on, one of Baron’s players came to him and said, “I can’t make it” to practice.  

Baron said to her, “If I had a gun. I’d shoot you,” Burns alleged.

The suit lays out a longer history between Baron and the player.

During the 2016-17 season, the player skipped a game to attend a Broadway play, according to the complaint. As a result, the player did not play the next game. The player had served as a team captain that season.

At the end of the season, according to the complaint, Baron met with the player and obtained her assurance that, in the next season, there would be no conflicts.

In June 2017, the player’s mother — a teacher in Voorheesville’s high school, according to the complaint —  informed Baron that the player would not be in school during the week of Thanksgiving, missing a week of practice and a scrimmage. Baron told the player’s mother that this was in violation of team rules and that the player would not start right away, would sit out a game, and Baron would defer naming captains until mid-December. The complaint says that these consequences were cleared in advance with Joseph Sapienza, the Voorheesville athletic director.

What happened next, according to the suit, is what Burns recounted at the Dec. 11 school board meeting.

On Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, at the start of practice, the complaint says, Baron asked all of the players for any conflicts so he could set up a practice schedule; no one mentioned conflicts. The next day, after the schedule was set, the player said she had a post-season soccer game.

Baron, in the presence of another player, the suit says, told the girl, “If I had a gun, I’d shoot you. But if you’re going to go and play [in the Senior soccer game] be careful and don’t do anything to hurt yourself.”

“No reasonable person could have ever perceived this statement as Constituting an actual threat,” the complaint claims.

The complaint alleges that, because of the actions Baron laid out — benching the player for a game and putting off naming captains — the player’s mother triggered a scheme to remove Baron as coach, by “inflating the context and grossly exaggerating the import of Baron’s comment.”

In meetings that took place in early November, between Baron, Hunt, and Sapienza, in Hunt’s office, Baron was made aware that a complaint had been alleged against him, and that an investigation would be conducted, according to court papers.

During the investigation, Baron would be suspended as coach and was not to have contact with any district employee or student, and was not to enter school grounds, and therefore could not investigate the allegations against him, according to the complaint.

In a follow-up meeting, the superintendent, athletic director, and Baron met again to further discuss the complaint against Baron. According to the complaint, Baron further explained the context and circumstance of what he was alleged to have said. Baron was surprised that the player had lodged the allegations because, according to Baron, he had a good relationship with the player, even writing “a personal letter of recommendation” for her.

He provided Hunt and Sapienza with “extensive prior email communications with the student’s parent, all of which were uniformly positive,” the complaint says.

During the Nov. 14 meeting of Baron, Hunt, and Sapienza, the high school principal, Laura Schmidt, described in the complaint as a friend of the player’s mother, “came into the meeting unannounced and unexpected, and volunteered that, having spoken with the player and her mother, they would not be accepting any apology from Mr. Baron,” the complaint says.

At a Nov. 18 meeting, Baron was informed that there had been a “floodgate” of complaints against him. According to the complaint, Hunt and Sapienza told Baron he was going to be fired based on the “floodgate” of complaints, and was given the option of resigning. In a letter, dated Dec. 28, 2017, Baron attempted to rescind his resignation.

Hunt then promised to meet with Baron at a later date to provide Baron with the results of the investigation. In December 2017, Baron called Hunt, seeking the findings of the investigation, and Hunt told Baron he was not permitted to talk to him “on the advice of counsel, the complaint says.

The suit refers to it as a “supposed investigation,” and says that only two of the 10 players, or their parents, were ever questioned — the player and the player’s longtime friend. The complaint said both of those players have parents who are members of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association.

Updated on March 19, 2017: Information was added that Brian Hunt, Doreen Saia, and Kathleen Fiero declined comment.

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