Last week the Marlboro School Administration and Board of Education officially parted ways with Rich Ward, who has been the district’s Varsity Football Coach for the past eight seasons. Previously, the district indicated that they were not going to rehire Ward for the upcoming fall season, citing an incident of unprofessional texting behavior in December with a parent of one of his football players. This all played out against a lawsuit that was filed against Ward in 2014, alleging inappropriate actions and language that he used against his players. The lawsuit was eventually tossed out.
Several weeks ago, after again listening to nearly unanimous positive comments from the public about Ward, the district decided to give him another shot and offered him a four-page, “Last Chance Agreement” on Friday, February 9 with a deadline for him to sign by the close of business on Monday February 12. The agreement noted that Ward’s conduct constituted “good cause” for his termination but in moving forward he would have to serve a one-game suspension without pay in the upcoming season. In addition, he would not engage in conduct that is considered bullying, abusive, harassing or use any profanity towards students, employees, trustees, parents, or other members of the Marlboro community or against opposing teams. The district also wanted Ward to abide by their established Code Of Conduct and the Athletic Handbook, especially the Coaching Ethics and Job Description and Responsibilities for all Head Coaches.
The agreement states that Ward would also sign an irrevocable letter of resignation that would be held by the Superintendent and executed only if Ward violated any of the terms of the agreement. If that were to occur the Superintendent would submit the letter to the school board for their formal acceptance of the Coach’s resignation. The agreement also stipulates that Ward would not be able to appeal, litigate, or contest in any forum, the District’s decision, if it should occur, or challenge any of the terms of enforcement of the Agreement. The District also included wording that the contents of the agreement would be subject to disclosure under the Freedom Of Information Law of the State of New York.
Ward did respond, however, it was two days past the board’s deadline. He submitted a stripped down version, citing only that “certain disputes” had arisen concerning his appointment as the Marlboro Varsity Football Coach. Ward added that he and the district “desire” to resolve any of the disputes, however, “with no admission of wrong doing by any party.”
Ward’s proposed agreement states four provisions that he would agree to: that he would be reappointed to his former position for the upcoming season “on the same terms and conditions applicable to all other coaches in the district.” He agreed to a one game suspension without pay and that he would complete “appropriate professional development courses offered by the NFS on interacting with parents, sportsmanship, teaching and modeling behavior and creating a safe and respectful environment.” In addition, Ward asked that he and the district “jointly prepare a mutually acceptable press release,” but he wanted the details of any Memo of Understanding to be considered a personnel matter and not be subject the Freedom of Information Law.
The Marlboro School District responded in a prepared statement.
“Under Mr. Ward’s proposed agreement, 11 of the 13 paragraphs in the District’s agreement were deleted, and more importantly, his proposed agreement nowhere indicated that he either accepted responsibility for his conduct, or that he would adhere to the District’s specific expectations for him, which were developed based on his past conduct.” The district’s statement mentioned Ward’s desire to impose what the district considers an illegal requirement – that the agreement itself be hidden from the public and the press.
During the last week’s meeting, school board voted 3-2 not to go into an executive session for a personnel matter, presumably to discuss the agreement with Ward. Susan Horton, JoAnn Reed and Russell Conley voted no and Frank Milazzo and John Cantone voted yes. Board member James Kuha was absent.
During Public Comment, the Administration and School Board were severely criticized for the way they have handled the issue with Ward. Many residents urged the board to sit down and work together to reach a mutually satisfying resolution. It was noted that “the boys deserve it, this team deserves it, this program deserves it and this school district deserves that.”
Parent Kristin Johnson told the board that finding a solution should be done “without egos, agendas or vendettas. This is about what is best for these student athletes. You need to reinstate Coach Ward.”
Todd Diorio said, “This was totally unfair, Mr. Brooks. The way this went down, the whole thing feels like a big fix. You gave him a contract that you know damn well he wasn’t going to sign.”
Tracey Tamburri was distressed with the board’s decision to let Ward go.
“I think this has been a vendetta. I think this has been a setup and I am so upset that this is the way this board would behave,” she said. “You have students that are asking you to do the right thing and instead its personal beliefs and personal feelings that are playing in this game.”
Ward said “if you don’t want to go into executive session how about we do it right here in front of everybody?” This led board member John Cantone to explain that executive sessions are for discussing personnel matters and anything talked about at these meetings is considered confidential. He pointed out that a non board member invited in to executive session is not bound by confidentiality, which is why Ward could not be invited into that type of meeting. He said the district could be put in a financial difficulty should information get out to the public in this type of scenario.
The issue of confidentiality of board members, however, is far from clear.
“I do not believe that the use of the term ‘confidential’ is entirely clear,” explained Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the NYS Committee on Open Government. “Whether it is good, wise or ethical to divulge information acquired during an executive session may be questionable and subject to a variety of points of view; nevertheless, unless a statute prohibits disclosure, I do not believe that doing so would constitute a violation of law.”
Student Emily Borchert, who is Ward’s niece, said, “Everyone has been hurt by this and to not even give us an answer is, I feel, very wrong and I have lost some respect because I have teachers and people I look up to who value public speaking and education but yet obviously they don’t because their actions speak louder than their words.”
Football player Matt Jackson said a very positive relationship exists between Coach Ward and his players.
“He loves us and we love him and we’re a family,” Jackson said. “I wish the board would make a decision with some passion, with some heart and not just give some statements that are like read off a cue card.”
Assistant Varsity Football Coach Alan Affuso said Ward, “has brought an amazing amount of professionalism, education, value, ethics to this program and that is why I wanted to be a part of it [and] I still want to be a part of it. These boys want to be a part of it and this community wants to continue to support it with everything that they have.”
The school district stated that Ward did not accept the terms of their proposed agreement and has started the process to fill the vacant Head Coach position.
When contacted by phone, Ward declined comment for this story.
By Mark Reynolds