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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, June 23, 2011
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Barb Newton was surrounded by supporters about 70 strong students, graduates, parents, teachers, and family members at Tuesday’s school board meeting. They came to protest the athletic director’s recommendation that she be replaced as head coach for varsity girls’ soccer, a post she held for 25 years.
In the end, the board went with the recommendation and named Curtis Snyder as next year’s coach.
Not allowed to speak in public session, Newton’s supporters went one at a time or in groups to speak to the school board, which was sequestered in an office, while the athletic director, Wayne Bertrand, waited by himself in the large meeting hall.
“She is a wonderful person and a good coach,” Bertrand told The Enterprise. “I’m a big fan.”
Newton, who is 49, will keep her job as a physical education teacher. “She’s a fine, accomplished teacher,” said Bertrand.
He declined to say why he had recommended Snyder, who worked with Newton last year, for the job instead of the long-time coach, stating it was a “personnel issue.”
Bertrand is responsible for evaluating almost 100 coaches, which he said he does by going to events and practices and watching people work.
“The nature of athletics professional and college and, unfortunately, now high school you tend to get second-guessed,” he said.
“I’m still looking for reasons,” Newton told The Enterprise as she and scores of her supporters waited outside the office while the school board deliberated.
Those in the crowd of supporters had two theories on why she was being replaced: In 25 years, her teams hadn’t won a Class AA title or even played for one.
Superintendent Marie Wiles had said, when The Enterprise broke the story two weeks ago, “Unlike college ball, wins and losses are not the main indicator.”
A second reason that some supporters posited on Tuesday night was that a few parents had complained that their daughters didn’t get enough playing time.
“I don’t have a definite idea,” said Newton.
She went on, “This is all about the kids, how to help them grow and become passionate about their goals.”
Two of this year’s players who will graduate on Saturday, twins Kelsey and Katie Wood, said Newton had inspired them both on and off the field.
“Coach Newton has been an inspiration to us,” said Katie Wood. “She let us be the best we could be.” Katie Wood will be attending the State University of New York College at Oneonta and said, “I definitely want soccer in my future.” She got the idea of going to Oneonta because Newton brought her to a soccer camp there.
“They’re not doing that this year,” her sister said of the camp. “It taught us team values.”
Kelsey Wood said of Newton, “She’d push us to the best of our ability. I had breathing issues…I had a trach for 11 years and some asthma. She understood when I needed a break once in a while.”
Kelsey Wood, who is going to LeMoyne to study nursing, said of Newton, “She didn’t take pity on me. She’d push me to try my hardest. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I have without her.”
She concluded, “It’s not fair they didn’t give her a reason.”
Krystal Myers and Kayla Best graduated from Guilderland in 2006 but came back to the school on Tuesday to support their coach. Best plans to be a teacher herself. She has earned a bachelor’s degree from the University at Albany and is in graduate school at The College of Saint Rose. “Coach Newton helped my leadership skills, my social skills, and my personal skills,” she said. Best played lacrosse in college and said, “The ethics she taught us contributed to my play.”
Myers also graduated from the University at Albany where she ran track and studied Spanish. She plans to go to graduate school to teach English as a second language.
Recalling her high school soccer career, she said, “My junior year, I woke up with mono the first day of tryouts. I worked hard and [Coach Newton] told me not to worry, and I made the team even though I was sick for the season…When my doctor okayed it, she let me play. It meant a lot to me that she put me on the team even though I was sick.”
“A lot of our friends who Newton coached played in college. She really pushed us,” said Best.
Myers said that Newton had over 300 supporters on a Facebook page: SaveBarbNewton.
Marie Mihok was there to speak on behalf of her daughter, Jennifer. “My daughter is playing semi-pro soccer in Jersey right now. That’s why she’s not here,” said Mihok. Jennifer Mihok played Division I soccer at the University at Buffalo and now has a coaching license, her mother said.
“Barb gave her a foundation of respect for the coaches and a work ethic that has carried her through,” said Mihok.
Speculating on the reasons Newton was being replaced, Mihok said, “I have often heard rumblings from parents who did not look at their children through clear eyes…I think parents have to look at their children with open eyes and not blame the coach if they’re not getting equal time on the field….Coddling your child is not the way to make them grow up. When my daughter played for UB, she had to earn her spot.”
Jennifer Mihok didn’t start on her team freshman year at the University of Buffalo; sophomore year, she started half the games; and in her junior and senior years, she started in all the games, her mother said.
Mihok criticized the district for having a double standard, saying, “I was told by the current athletic director that a varsity coach is not to play players equally; a varsity coach is here to win games.”
Mihok went on, “Barb Newton was a very fair coach. On Senior Night, which is a big thing for the kids, she started all the seniors.”
Mihok also lauded Newton for inspiring “female camaraderie” and gave as an example the way she included ball girls in the annual banquet. “They watched, they learned, they became a part of it,” said Mihok.
She concluded, “They’re railroading Barb for something the district has always stood for historically.”
Another parent, Wayde Bush, said of Newton, “She expects discipline and demands respect, and has a strong program. She’s a hard worker and expects the same of her players. I’d like to see her continue as head coach. Twenty-five years of success is no reason to let someone go.”
College AD speaks out
Tracy Ranieri, the athletic director at Oneonta, said that Guilderland has 81 male coaches and just 25 female coaches.
“Are 76 percent of the students at Guilderland males?” she asked. “What is the board doing to support gender equity for the coaching staff?”
Ranieri went on, “This is about role-modeling and opportunity for women young women as well as adult women. How do young women learn to be competitive without female role models?”
Ranieri also said, “I’ve recruited many, many players from Guilderland…They have talent. That’s the true credence of high-school coaching how many go on to play in college.”
Ranieri said she has worked with Newton at camps and clinics. “She’s the most competitive person I know,” she said. “She balances that with the needs of the players. That’s why they are growing into whole adults that will do well in college. She, more than anybody, wants to win. Given the chance, she will.”
About Newton’s teams never having won a Class AA championship, Ranieri said, “She’s just in a really tough conference. There are state champs in this conference. They lost all their games this year by one goal,” she said of Guilderland.
Of firing a coach for not winning, Ranierri said, “I give the board credit not to be thinking that way. I think there’s been some unfounded complaints that have no validity. That’s the disservice. All the accolades are not being remembered. They don’t know what they’re losing.”
Newton is a Guilderland graduate whose father was president of the school board. She went on to Cortland State, playing Division I soccer on a team that won the first-ever women’s championship. She returned to Guilderland to start her teaching career in 1985.
In addition to teaching physical education at the high school, she also coaches cross-country skiing and, in 1992, she started the girls’ lacrosse program.
Both of her brothers, Robert and Jeff, were at the board meeting Tuesday to support Newton.
“She was always a much better athlete than the two of us put together,” said Jeff Haines. Recalling their Guilderland childhood, he said, “The boys used to come by asking her to play football instead of me.”
Robert Haines, a 1978 Guilderland graduate, bemoaned “the complete loss of honor, integrity, ethics, and loyalty with the administration” in recent years.
“She hasn’t been told why,” he said of his sister’s dismissal. He attributed the lack of a sectional championship to “the law of larger numbers,” explaining, “the bigger schools have a bigger talent pool to draw from….She could have gone to a bigger school and had a shelf full of trophies.”
Haines said of administrators, “They don’t want to say it’s because of a win-loss record or a lack of title, or a few parents who complain. She’s too honorable and too dedicated to her students so they can’t give a solid reason except to appease some whining parents. As the wealth has increased in Guilderland, the backbone of the administration has disappeared.”
He also said, “It’s a horrible lesson for kids. It says you can devote 25 years of your life to a company, but don’t expect any loyalty or respect in return.”
Finally, he asked, “Why would any teacher want to teach here with the knowledge they could be booted at any moment with a couple of complaints from parents?”
At 10:15 p.m., two hours after the board adjourned to executive session, the last speaker emerged from the office, and applause rippled through the waiting crowd. Newton received hugs and handshakes.
The crowd then waited another hour as the board deliberated; two other items were also on the agenda for the closed session.
The state’s Open Meetings Law says that the public has the right to attend, observe, and listen to an elected board. The board can adopt its own rules about allowing the public to speak. The Guilderland School Board currently allows public comment at the beginning and end of every meeting but does not allow comment on named individuals.
A decade ago, when Don Snyder, the long-time boys’ soccer coach who had founded the soccer program at Guilderland, was being fired, supporters were allowed to speak in public to the board. The board ultimately kept Snyder in his coaching post until he decided to retire. (Curtis Snyder, named to replace Newton, is Don Snyder’s son. Guilderland’s varsity tennis coach, Curtis Snyder started an eighth-grade boys’ soccer team for Guilderland in 1994 and coached the boys’ junior varsity soccer team from 1997 until last fall when he assisted Newton.)
The board changed its policy after another coaching incident. When there were allegations about a girls’ volleyball coach calling her players “sluts,” the board allowed public comments in favor of the coach and then learned it should also allow comments critical of her.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, had explained at the time that, according to federal case law, “If praiseworthy comments regarding staff are permitted, the board must also permit critical comments.”
Freeman has also said on situations like the one the school board faced Tuesday night, “They had the right to discuss the entirety of the issue in public. It’s part of the ‘Personnel Myth’,” Freeman said, adding that if people repeat things enough times, they come to believe it is true. “It drives me crazy,” he said.
Freeman went on, “The law says a board may enter executive session. The board is absolutely free to discuss the issue in public.”
The school board president, Richard Weisz, a lawyer, has explained in the past, “Our rules are, we can’t take personnel information in public.” He explained the reason for the board’s self-imposed rule: “No one knows what someone stepping up to a microphone will say. It could be true or false, positive or negative.”
Ranieri, Oneonta’s athletic director, told The Enterprise that she had read the board’s policy on public comment and tailored her comments for public session. “I was going to talk about the program,” she said, expressing her frustration that she wasn’t allowed to speak in public.
Robert Haines said he was frustrated that, when he addressed the board in closed session, no one responded to his comments. The only comment, he said, was to tell him he had 30 seconds left of his allotted three minutes to speak.
The board returned to the meeting hall after three hours. Thirty-four of Newton’s supporters remained at 11:15 p.m.
A motion was made and seconded to make the recommended coaching appointments for next year, which included Curtis Snyder as head coach for girls’ soccer. There was no public discussion. Seven of the eight members present Catherine Barber, Emilio Genzano, Colleen O’Connell, Allan Simpson, Judy Slack, Gloria Towle-Hilt, and Weisz voted in favor; Denise Eisele was absent. Barbara Fraterrigo abstained.
Asked why she abstained, Fraterrigo said yesterday, “It was a real tough decision. I wanted to honor two sets of people.” One camp, she said was “Barb Newton for all her years of dedicated service.”
Then, she said, “But the kids had to be first in my mind. They had already made plans with their new coach and elected captains. It would be disruptive at this point to take that away from them.”
Curtis Snyder told The Enterprise earlier that Bertrand had offered him the job in early June.
Directly after the meeting, The Enterprise asked Weisz why the board had decided not to reappoint Newton. Weisz declined comment, saying it was a “personnel issue.”
“We’re not going to say anything other than we approved the recommendation,” he said.
Asked if Barb Newton would be told why, Weisz said, “We believe sufficient information has been shared with her. That’s how we’ll end it.”
Newton thanked her supporters, some of whom called out in frustration to the board. The Enterprise asked Newton if she planned any further action.
“This is what I needed, right here,” she said, gesturing to the supporters who clustered about her. “What more could I ask for?”