Crowd rallies for fired coach

The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael
Overwhelming support: A Berne-Knox-Westerlo basketball player hugs the former varsity head coach, Andy Wright, on Monday after being part of a group of players who stood in front of the school board, voicing their disgust about Wright’s firing. About 20 people spoke in front of the school board, and each person supported Wright.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia
Walk of honor: Andy Wright walks away from the podium, and gets a standing ovation after speaking at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school board meeting on Monday night; the varsity basketball coaching position remains open after Wright’s recent firing. During his speech, Wright said that the school board has a “petty agenda.” Two school board members, seated at left, President Joan Adriance and Vice President Vasilios Lefkaditis, are clapping after Wright’s speech.

BERNE — A vocal crowd in support of the fired basketball coach, Andy Wright, could get no answers from the school board during an intense meeting Monday night, but a list of district expectations reveal that the complaints centered entirely on coaching.

After an hour-and-three-quarters closed meeting with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board Wednesday night, the interim superintendent, Lonnie Palmer, said he made a mistake on Monday night not responding at the time to the crowd. A response should have been made acknowledging the outpouring, he said, but the board still could not comment on issues involving a particular employee and was not going to act on anything discussed; it was not on the agenda.

Further, Palmer said he would be writing a statement, to be approved by the board, for next week’s Enterprise.

Many in Monday’s crowd demanded to know why Wright was being fired after 10 years as head boys’ varsity coach. Wright has said repeatedly he was given no reason and Tom Galvin, the athletic director, who resigned in protest over the firing, said that Palmer gave only this explanation: the district wanted to move in a different direction.

A two-year-old document obtained from Wright lists what the district’s problems with Wright were at the time.

On Oct. 28, 2011, former BKW principal Thomas McGurl addressed a letter to Wright, outlining seven expectations he would need to follow as coach of the varsity team for the 2011-12 season. The letter was a follow up to a meeting held two days before: Wright; McGurl; the former superintendent, Paul Dorward; and Galvin were present at that meeting.

The seven expectations ranged from not allowing Wright’s players in his classroom during the day — he’s a tenured social studies teacher at BKW — to being on time for all basketball practices and events.

Also, issues regarding Wright’s behavior and equality of players were raised.

At the time, Wright and Galvin said, they weren’t told the source of complaints, but Wright agreed to follow the list of expectations to “make the school proud,” he said.

A message left by The Enterprise for Dorward, currently the superintendent at Beacon City Schools, was not returned. McGurl, now the principal and athletic director at Fort Edward High School, declined to comment about the 2011 letter.

“I don’t want to be involved with what’s going on over there,” said McGurl on Wednesday. “If there’s a lawsuit down the line, I don’t want to be involved.”

Wright, who met with a representative from the New York State United Teachers on Monday, said on Tuesday that he’s not seeking legal action against BKW at this time, but did say that he has questions about supposed anonymous surveys being given about coaches at the district.

“Decisions were made for me, not by me,” said Wright. “Publicly, in a lot of ways, there’s questions about who I am, and that’s not good. I don’t want to rely on a lawsuit, but people should know why I’m being fired.”

Galvin said on Wednesday that when the 2011-12 basketball season was over, McGurl, Dorward, Wright, and himself had a meeting, but Galvin wasn’t sure if the meeting was documented. Galvin said that Dorward and McGurl complimented Wright, and were satisfied with how the coach upheld the list of expectations.

“He met everything that was put on the table,” Galvin said of Wright. “It’s very similar to what is going on right now; there’s this cloud of mystery. It’s all perception.”

Outspoken supporters

A score of people spoke in front of the school board on Monday night, all in support of Wright, who also said his piece at the microphone. People started yelling at the school board members when they got no response. While the screaming went on, the school board members sat in silence.

“You got voted in, but we can vote you out,” shouted Dennis Barber, who coaches eighth-grade boys’ basketball at BKW and wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor in support of Wright last week.

The school board moved into the “new business” portion of Monday’s meeting as many unsatisfied community members started to leave the auditorium.

Wright told The Enterprise on Tuesday that he doesn’t support the actions of those who hollered at the school board on Monday. He was advised by many people to not speak himself, but said he “felt beaten down” and “people needed to hear my voice.”

“That was mob behavior, but I had no control over it,” Wright said. “I didn’t try to antagonize anything.”

However, the audience exploded with loud ovations all evening as people walked to and from the microphone. Most of the speakers hugged Wright or shook his hand after they voiced opinions.

“I’m not apart from reality,” said Wright on Monday. “I didn’t make these people talk.”

Larry Wilson, whose son, Tristan, played for Wright until graduating last June, spoke to the school board about cynicism, and how it’s leading to a “downward spiral.”

Garrett Pitcher, BKW’s all-time leading male scorer, and his older sister, Amber, who played for Galvin on the girls’ team, struggled to hold back tears at the podium. “You play to win, and play to be a family,” Amber said, “and that’s what Coach Wright has done.”

“If you pick anyone else, it’s pathetic,” Garrett Pitcher told the school board.

Bill LeBarr, a 2009 BKW graduate and co-Western Athletic Conference champion under Wright, got the crowd to cheer in the middle of his speech. “Andy’s [Wright] face is the face on that Bulldog,” he said. “I’m not going to let this man fall on your sword.”

Former Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Siena College assistant basketball coach, Brian Rubino, came up to Berne from Colonie on Monday. He’s the director of the Capital District Post Players Camp, and he said that Wright has brought some BKW players to the camp.

“He’s willing to pay out of his pocket to get a kid into the camp,” Rubino said. “I tell him that that’s foolish, but he’s concerned about the kids.”

Galvin stood in front of the school board on Monday, imploring the members to “stop the madness.” He pointed at Wright, saying Wright was a “broken man.”

Eric Prescott, a 2008 BKW graduate who played for Wright, told the school board he had talked to some current Bulldogs’ players, and some said they wouldn’t play for another coach. Prescott never had the desire to play basketball in high school — he said he was a “punk” kid — but Wright had helped him become a responsible person.

“I didn’t play a lot during my senior year, but I continued to support the team,” Prescott said. “I became a better man.”

While Andrew Haverly asked the school board about the proposed “new direction” of the boys’ basketball team, Mike Puzulis placed a petition — calling for Wright’s reinstatement — of 340 signatures in front of the board members. Vice President Vasilios Lefkaditis slid the petition to his right, not picking up the paper.

Before anyone even spoke about Wright on Monday night, school board President Joan Adriance told the crowd that the board wouldn’t be commenting on “personnel matters.”

About 90 minutes later, with most of the audience gone, the school board voted on winter coaching appointments. The varsity, junior-varsity, and seventh-grade boys’ basketball positions remained open; BKW will be interviewing for the jobs up until the next Nov. 4 school board meeting.

Social media

The furor over Wright's dismissal has been broadcast over social media sites Facebook and Twitter, with a page in support of him dating back to the period when he was given the list of expectations. 

Palmer said multiple cases of student and staff conduct on social media have been referred to the school district’s lawyer in the past few months. Palmer told The Enterprise after Wednesday’s meeting that he would be researching the school’s policies to determine whether its guidelines are specific enough to cover conduct on social media sites.

Cases involving the sites are complicated and addressed on a case-by-case basis, said Palmer.

The school’s policies cover employee and student conduct, on and off campus, but don’t mention social media.

A policy on staff conduct states: “The personal life of an employee warrants the attention of the Board only as it may directly affect the employee’s fitness to perform the job, his/her fitness to be placed in a position of trust with children, the property of the district, or constitute a conflict of interest.”

Wright's Twitter account features protestations of his innocence and words of support from others.

“I don't worry about what appears on FB or Twitter. Although it is interesting to see who is linked to who and the relationships behind it,” Wright wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday.

“Really can't wait to look some people right in the eyes tomorrow,” another Tweet said, posted the day before the board meeting. “Gift of insight is a blessing and a curse. You will show me and I will know.”

Secondary School Principal Brian Corey told The Enterprise at the Monday meeting that he hasn't had any issues arise of teachers using social media improperly.

“Obviously, you have to be as professional as possible. You are a public face," Corey said of teachers.

Improvement plan

Here’s a list of the seven expectations that McGurl wrote for Wright prior to the 2011-12 basketball season, followed by comments from Wright and Galvin:

— Between the hours of 8:00 and 3:10 your room will be used for the purpose of academics. Your athletes are not to be in your room during that time unless they are for class.

Wright says that players like to be around a coach. “They wouldn’t disrupt class, but they’d catch up in between class,” he said. “The kids would attempt to see me, but practice and game time would be their only access”;

— You’re on and off court behavior must exemplify a mature and composed leader of a varsity program. Outbursts, unprofessional displays of anger and frustration will not be tolerated. This includes verbal and physical displays.

“Any basketball coach could fall victim to this, arguing calls with officials,” Galvin said. “Andy [Wright] might have scowled, been acting more negative than he actually was. In a game, you’re fighting for your team, trying to do the best.”

Wright said that he was told that his sideline demeanor was too animated, and that he scowled or looked angry too much. “My character was questioned, but I didn’t feel like I was out of line,” said Wright. “I matured in the position. I wasn’t as mature when I started, but I made strides.”

During a basketball game, hundreds of people are watching. The coach is always under a microscope, Galvin said.

“Every coach is negative sometimes; kids need to understand their mistakes,” said Galvin. “You break them down, and then build them up.”

Wright took the criticism of his behavior, he said, putting on a poker face. “I would smile, laugh things off,” he said. “I made the school look good”;

— All interactions with parents and community members are to be professional and when possible proactive.

Every parent needs to protect their child, said Wright, a father of five. Wright says he was always appropriate when parents approached him with questions.

“You have to identify the problems before letters are written,” said Wright. “You do the best you can, and make sure that people understand that you care”;

— Both the Athletic Director and Secondary Principal are to be included in all issues involving the team that may be potentially problematic for the district.

Wright believes that this expectation is now ironic; BKW’s current principal, Brian Corey, and former athletic director, Galvin, were not informed of Wright’s firing until they all sat down with Palmer, on Oct. 8.

“It’s the exact opposite of how this situation has gone,” said Wright. “For me to follow that, and I did, it’s including perspective that I hadn’t presented something, or handled something. Obviously, now, things are being presented that are problematic, and the other side is completely absent.”

BKW’s athletic director was always aware of everything, Wright said. He and  Galvin had constant communication, and that’s the only way a coach could survive, he said.

Before his resignation as athletic director, Galvin said that he and Corey would talk about Wright’s progress as coach, and Corey was supportive. Corey did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

People say that Wright and Galvin are friends, and Galvin acknowledged that as truth at Monday’s school board meeting during his speech.

On Wednesday, Galvin said that Wright has followed all of the rules. “McGurl and Dorward weren’t Andy’s friend, and they were supervising him, too,” he said. “I took my athletic director job seriously, and acted with professionalism.”

Wright suspects that the BKW administration is running through another channel, like anonymous coaching surveys. It’s beyond the chain of command, he said;

You must support and enforce the Athletic Code of Conduct with all of your athletes in every situation.

There were no specifics or particulars with this expectation, Wright said.

“It’s hearsay, circumstance,” he said. “What’s the controversy here? This is not a game of chess with the school board”;

— You are to be on time to all practices and rigidly adhere to pre-set and distributed practice schedule.

BKW basketball coaches share a gym, so the door was usually open, Wright said. There was constant supervision.

“There was one circumstance last year when I was late for a bus; my wife’s car broke down,” said Wright. “I was 10 minutes late, and called first, so they waited.”

Wright said that being on time has never been a problem; and

— You must treat every athlete equally regardless of ability.

Upon hearing this final expectation, Wright said he asked McGurl if the matter had to do with playing time, which is not guaranteed at the varsity level according to the districts athletic code. McGurl denied that it was about minutes, said Wright; McGurl told Wright that the concern was about treating players fairly.

“I always gave respect,” Wright said. “I wanted to coach.”

Galvin told The Enterprise that McGurl could have worded his final expectation of Wright any way, but it was about how individuals were treated. Galvin, who has coached the BKW girls’ varsity basketball team for 15 years, said that some athletes might be treated better than others.

“Some kids aren’t as involved as some of the others,” said Galvin. “You build relationships with certain people who share certain desires. They’re in the gym early, and they stay late. They’re leaders who have your back.”

Liz Harvey and Garrett Pitcher — Harvey is BKW’s all-time leading scorer and Pitcher is the school’s highest male scorer — both graduated last June. Galvin coached Harvey for five years, and Wright coached Pitcher for four.

“They could be seen as favorites, sure,” said Galvin. “Some kids buy all the way in, and some just go through the motions, not buying in. If a player does what they’re asked, the relationship will be good. It just depends on how much they care.”

With coaching favorites, Galvin said, the perception is skewed.

“It will surface if I did something wrong,” Wright said. “I’m not out of my mind. I know what I’ve done.”

Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said that Teacher Improvement Plans went into effect last September as part of the required statewide evaluation process, but he said, “There’s no statewide evaluation of coaches.”

Asked if coaches have any employment guarantees like teachers do, Dunn said, “We don’t have anything to do with coaches.” He added that hiring or firing coaches is a local matter.

New York State law, however, requires that public-school employment of coaches to be voted on by elected school boards.

Towards the end of McGurl’s 2011 letter to Wright, McGurl writes, “Should the issue be of a serious nature, your position may be terminated mid-season. It should also be noted, that should any of these points be violated, you will not be asked to coach again at BKW.”

Wright was appointed as coach for the 2012-13 season, and the Bulldogs came within one three-pointer of beating eventual Class C state champion Lake George.

Wright said he has tried to be ethical ever since those expectations were presented to him in 2011.

“There was a best interest of winning, but it was never over the kids,” said Wright, who did not win a sectional title in 10 years of coaching. “I hope this isn’t about wins or losses; wins were secondary. I played guys when they probably shouldn’t have played.”

Wright said he had no dialogue with Palmer at Monday’s school board meeting, but the two did make eye contact while Wright spoke to the board. Palmer has never seen Wright coach basketball, he said.

Palmer was appointed to a year’s stint as interim superintendent this summer after Dorward left for a larger district.

“He doesn’t have enough knowledge about me,” Wright said of Palmer. “The second time we ever spoke, he told me I wouldn’t be coaching. This is business to him, just business.”

Meanwhile, a varsity basketball program waits in the wings.

“Yeah, some old issues haven’t been let go, and maybe it’s the same people,” Galvin said of the complainants. “Andy moved on, but skeletons have been dug up, and they’re trying to stick to the wall. It’s double jeopardy.”

— Marcello Iaia contributed the section on social media and the reporting on Wednesday’s executive session of the school board.

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