Earlier today I linked this story about the firing of Montoursville girls’ basketball coach Craig Weaver Jr. and the predictable kerfuffle at the ensuing school board meeting that always happens when a coach “doesn’t know why” he was canned.
Montoursville girls basketball generally doesn’t make an appearance on my radar screen. I couldn’t tell you a thing about Montoursville hoops or about Weaver. I have no idea whether he should stay or go. That’s ultimately up to the board.
But this story reminded me of one of my pet peeves with school boards: Hiding behind the phrase “it’s a personnel matter” to avoid answering the tough question of why a coach was removed absent of obvious misdeeds.
This story reminded me of the firing a few years ago of Middletown football coach Mike Donghia for reasons that were rumored and whispered and never explained by the people who did the firing, the board.
I like Mike. He’s enthusiastic, reasonably competent (from what I can tell) and did a nice job of persevering despite a nasty medical condition that led to excruciating and, at the time, mysterious headaches. (He has since been diagnosed with a condition that caused microscopic cracks in his cranial blood vessels, which led to seepage and the resulting headaches. Medication cleared up the problem, and Mike is now coaching at Lebanon Valley College.)
So, I attended the school board meeting at which the board opened Mike’s position. I was there to cover it for The Patriot-News, but I was also really interested in seeing how the board handled the matter and what it would say. Nothing, as it turned out.
The public meeting was the circus it figured to be. Several people, including football players, spoke in support of Mike; I don’t recall anyone rising to support the board’s decision. At one point, Mike called the board liars; others shouted at the board. Tempers began to flare a bit.
Through it all, the board remained silent for the most part. Only when pressed by Mike and a few audience members was the matter addressed by a board member or two. The response, in so many words, was: It’s a personnel matter and we can’t discuss it.
That was all one member of the audience, an attorney and a former Middletown football player, could take. An imposing man, he sprang to his feet, pointed to Mike Donghia and shouted: “That provision exists for his protection, not your protection. You owe that man an answer!”
It took all of my professional restraint to keep from leaping to my feet and screaming in joy. Finally, someone got it right and got it right out loud.
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one in the room. Many of the others gathered at the meeting applauded wildly, recognizing the same thing I did and the attorney did: The board was hiding, and hiding big-time, behind the phrase “It’s a personnel matter.”
Donghia himself leaped in and shouted to the board, “I waive my right to privacy. I waive my right.”
The board was unmoved, literally. They just sat there, saying nothing, although someone though it would be a swell idea to call the cops to tamp down the unruly mob. It was the classic over-reaction. The crowd was angry, yes, but it wasn’t violent. The crowd was a blast from a steam engine; the board thought it was on the verge of a nuclear meltdown. (Ooo, should I use that analogy when discussing something in Middletown?)
I agree wholeheartedly with the concept of discussing personnel matters in executive session, but that doesn’t give school boards license to say nothing when the public asks questions. Indeed, I believe there should be a state law that requires a board, once the person involved has waived his right to privacy, to disclose the reasons for firing a coach or any other stuff member for dubious reasons.
I realize that is fraught with peril, too. But look at it from my point of view: Covering school board meetings would actually become fun.
Look, I have a lot of respect for people who serve on school boards. It is one of the toughest public jobs out there because board members, unlike our gilded legislators, face their constituents unfiltered. And when there’s a crowd at a school board meeting, it’s usually not because the public has come to praise the board, but to bury it. So board members have earned some sympathy from me.
But if a board is going to fire a coach publicly for reasons that are murky, they owe that man (or woman) an answer. In public.
Because at that point, it’s less a personnel matter than a personal matter.