Community must decide the role of a coach

Public schools are meant to educate our children. School board members are elected to represent the citizens in a school district. Those citizens support the schools — obviously, financially, through taxes, but in a myriad of more subtle ways as well, ranging from volunteering time and talents at the school to attending school functions like plays or sporting events.

In short, schools belong to their communities.

This week, we’ve received calls and letters about a coach at Berne-Knox-Westerlo. Andrew Wright, a social studies teacher at the high school and a BKW alumnus, has coached varsity boys’ basketball at BKW for a decade. He says he’s being fired but has been given no reason. The athletic director, Tom Galvin, quit his job because, he says, he wasn’t consulted on the decision to fire Wright and the only reason he was given, by the interim superintendent, Lonnie Palmer, was that the district was going in a different direction.

We’ve heard from some who are outraged or mystified by this decision. Unlike, say, a classroom teacher, whose performance can be judged only by the small group of people in that room, a coach’s performance plays out in a public arena. Spectators have a fairly good idea if, say, a coach is abusive towards his players; no one’s alleged anything like that in this case.

We’ve been stonewalled by school leaders as we’ve tried to get answers, to understand the situation so we can explain it to the community. The most we’ve been able to learn, from some basketball players and their parents, is there were complaints that players weren’t given equal playing time and that Wright favored star players over others.

The law allows boards to discuss firing an employee in closed session and we have no quibble with that. The school board, by state law, makes the decision on who it employs.

But we’ve been stonewalled, too, on questions of procedure, policy, and philosophy. Those should rightly be discussed in the public domain.

If schools are meant to educate children, the sports teams that districts support, through taxpayers’ money, should further the learning process. Part of a school board’s job is to set policy. If BKW is to head in a “different direction,” the school board should set the course.

We believe an honest and open discussion is needed on what interscholastic sports teach students and on what the role of a coach should be. Should a coach have favorites? Should better players get more time on the court or in the field? Or should the goal be to let a number of athletes play so that each has a chance to develop skills? How important is winning?

One philosophy might be that the life lesson to be taught in sports is one of having each progress as much as she or he is able. This week, a mother told us a player later in life won’t remember the score of a game but will remember he never had a chance to play, to participate. One could argue, if an athlete isn’t playing, he or she isn’t given a chance to learn.

Another philosophy might be, on the playing field as well as in life, team members support each other, which means standing behind the players that do the best, sacrificing personal glory for the good of the group. One BKW basketball star asked what would be the motivation to improve if everyone were to be treated the same.

Is winning more important than building players’ self-esteem? And what about self-esteem? Some would argue it is hollow if it is not based on merit in a competitive setting. Others would say accepting loss and carrying on is an important lesson to learn.

These are not easy questions to ask or answer. But they need to be discussed, and the school board members, as the elected leaders of the district, need to come up with some answers. One solution might be to develop a progressive policy where interscholastic sports at the modified, or middle-school level, would stress skill development over competitiveness.

The point is, separate from any issue over a single coach, the district needs a clear understanding of what it wants to teach its students on the playing field and the board needs to develop, adopt, and publicize a policy to guide all of its coaches.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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