At SWR, it’s been one AD after another

12/13/2013 7:00 AM |

The night of May 28 provided for a unique showcase for Shoreham-Wading River High School to flex its muscle as an athletic powerhouse. Hundreds of fans sporting blue and gold packed into Dowling Sports Complex on a rainy night in Shirley to watch a doubleheader featuring both the boys and girls lacrosse teams battling for county championships.

It was a rare pairing of boys and girls title games on the same field, a few hours apart. But it seemed perfectly appropriate. After all, since 2004, the teams have combined to win 15 county championships.

That same night, far removed from the cheering crowds, the behind-the-scenes flux within the athletic department hit another crescendo. For the past six years, a revolving door of athletic directors have come and gone at Shoreham, an unprecedented rate of turnover that has deprived the program of any long-term stability.

In the high school library, about two hours into its meeting, the school board turned its attention to Resolution No. 1213-221, a tenure recommendation for athletic director Ken Marlborough, who was first hired in 2008.

As a handful of residents looked on, board president Bill McGrath put the motion to a vote.

“All in favor?” he asked, raising his left hand to cast a yes vote.

Board members Michael Fucito, Robert Rose and Sean Beran raised their hands, giving the motion a majority vote for approval. As Mr. McGrath asked who opposed, vice president Richard Pluschau interjected and questioned Mr. Beran’s decision.

Mr. Beran shuffled some papers, and apologized for getting his “papers mixed up.”

Mr. McGrath asked once again for those in favor. Three hands went up. He asked for those who opposed.

Members John Zukowski, Jack Costas and Mr. Pluschau raised their hands. So, too, did Mr. Beran.

The motion failed, 4-3.

Mr. Beran’s apparent confusion as to which resolution was up for vote came with a plausible explanation: He had been elected to the board just one week earlier.

Yet with no prior experience on the board, he felt confident enough in a decision to vote against the recommendation of Superintendent Steven Cohen, effectively firing Mr. Marlborough and guaranteeing the district’s run without a tenured athletic director would extend beyond a decade.

When Mark Passamonte — who’s currently a principal at Canton High School, located about 25 miles south of the Canadian border — begins his duties Jan. 6 as the Shoreham-Wading River School District’s newest athletic director, it will mark the ninth transition the position has undergone since 2005. Seven of those transitions have come in the past six years. By comparison, of the 11 similar-sized schools Shoreham competes against in Class A this year, none has endured more than one transition during that same time period.

Interviews with more than a dozen current and former coaches, administrators and board members, plus a review of Board of Education minutes, revealed a timeline of the ever-rotating position and offered insight into some of the controversy surrounding it. While some of the turnover has been unavoidable, and the result of poor luck, two interim ADs abruptly resigned in addition to Mr. Marlborough’s departure. Most recently, Lynn Schwartz, a retired Westhampton superintendent, left the position at the start of the school year in September. Mr. Schwartz’s sudden exit left the school scrambling to find a replacement just as fall sports were getting underway.

The success Shoreham teams have enjoyed over the past decade has fueled a culture where everyone wants a piece of the pie. In many ways, sports has become the community’s identity.

“Lacrosse in Shoreham is not just a sport that plays in the spring; it is the very heartbeat of our district,” Shoreham resident Christine Bruno said at a recent board meeting in defense of ousted boys varsity coach Tom Rotanz, who was informed last month that the superintendent would not recommend him for the position this spring. In lacrosse especially, the potential for scholarship money leads to frenzied parents going all-out to assure their child has every chance to reach their athletic pinnacle — and possibly ease the burden of the enormous expense of secondary education. It’s the athletic director who’s often caught in the cross-hairs.

“This place has chewed up its ADs,” Mr. Cohen said.

At Shoreham, strife among the administration, school board and overbearing parents, along with the constant threat of a budget crisis, has transformed the athletic director position — especially when it’s without tenure — into one of the most challenging in the district.

And in the past six years, no one has survived.

RICH BARNES FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River fans have been passionate supporters of their teams.

Throughout much of Shoreham’s history, the athletic department was guided by either Diana Wells or Mike Schwenk. As other administrators came and went, the athletic department could count on stability in the AD position for more than 20 years, into the early 2000s, when Mr. Schwenk resigned.

It wasn’t always perfect. But the stability was evident.

When Mr. Schwenk resigned, the school hired Paul Jendrewski, the school’s former wrestling coach, who had been a teacher in the middle school, as the next AD. It was his first position as an administrator.

He held the job for about three years before deciding to retire at the end of the school year in 2005. His wife was ill and he wanted to spend more time with his family, he said at the time.

In July 2005, Jim Cranmer officially replaced Mr. Jendrewski as the school’s fourth athletic director. Over the next three years, Shoreham’s sports teams continued to excel, winning state championships in lacrosse and sending teams from nearly every sport to the playoffs, even as budget problems constantly threatened the athletic department’s future.

A gregarious man who had worked previously as an athletic director at Bayport-Blue Point and Plainedge high schools, Mr. Cranmer was an ideal replacement. As his third year at Shoreham wound down — when he would have in all likelihood been granted tenure — Mr. Cranmer got an opportunity to become athletic director at Island Trees High School. The school was a brief commute from his home in Nassau County. The job was too good to pass up, so Mr. Cranmer accepted the position and left Shoreham in 2008.

“If you want to call it a problem, one of the biggest things you have to look at when you’re an AD is there seemed to be a real money flow problem,” Mr. Cranmer said of dealing with budget issues during his time at Shoreham. “Financially, it just hindered you from wanting to move forward with things.”

Mr. Marlborough, who lives in Cutchogue, became the next athletic director. As he entered his third year, an unfortunate accident sidelined him for about eight months. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in August 2011, Mr. Marlborough fell from a tree while clearing debris and was seriously injured. The accident sparked the run of interim ADs and postponed for more than a year Mr. Marlborough’s tenure recommendation.

“He was supposed to work the whole year and a tenure decision was going to be made sometime during the year,” Mr. Cohen said. “But when he fell out of the tree, that sort of put off our ability to make a decision until when he came back.”

JOE WERKMEISTER FILE PHOTO | Lynn Schwartz, a retired Westhampton superintendent, abruptly resigned as interim athletic director in September, just as the fall sports season began.

In September 2011, the school board approved Mr. Schwartz, a well-respected administrator with an impressive résumé, to serve as the interim athletic director. Mr. Cohen had just been hired by the school board three months earlier on a contentious 4-3 vote as the replacement for Harriet Copel, who opted not to seek another contract.

At the time, dissenting board members said the process to hire the superintendent was rushed. Former board member Leo Greeley called it a “travesty to the community.”

Mr. Cohen’s first task for Mr. Schwartz was to provide an assessment on the state of the athletic program.

“All of these controversies swirling and I’m a new guy in town,” Mr. Cohen said. “I know nothing. Everybody’s telling me their side of the story. So Lynn [Schwartz] was going to be my guy to help me understand what was going on.”

Mr. Schwartz reported that there were no concerns over the “quality of programs,” Mr. Cohen said. A month after Mr. Schwartz’s hiring, the board appointed Debbie Lutjen, a physical education teacher, as the substitute director of physical education to fill a part of the job for which Mr. Schwartz wasn’t certified.

With Mr. Marlborough’s return date still uncertain, Mr. Schwartz had agreed to work for several months up until his planned vacation with his wife, who had recently retired, Mr. Cohen said. Mr. Marlborough’s absence extended longer than expected.

So the school hired another interim.

Starting Feb. 6, 2012, Nick Schroeder, a longtime athletic director at Smithtown and another well-respected administrator, joined as a per diem substitute. Mr. Schroeder was certified for both health education and physical education, allowing him to take on the full job.

Mr. Schroeder lasted just over a month, resigning effective March 16.

In an interview, Mr. Schroeder spoke highly of his brief stint at Shoreham, mostly in reference to the coaching staff.

“I have some opinions, but I was there so short a period of time, it’s hard for me to be judgmental about it,” Mr. Schroeder said. “But I was impressed with the coaching staff across the board.”

Mr. Schroeder said during his 17 years at Smithtown, his contact on a day-to-day basis with the superintendent was always minimal. The environment at Shoreham was different.

“It’s more microscopic, let’s say,” he said. “I was in [with the superintendent] quite a bit and dealing with issues that are typical. I was in there a lot, let me just say that. Some things you just have to let people handle.”

Mr. Schroeder reiterated that he didn’t mean to be critical of Mr. Cohen, but was merely pointing out the different approach compared to his previous job, where he had been in place for many years.

Mr. Cohen said the athletic director reports directly to him rather than an assistant superintendent. In an ideal scenario, his interaction with the athletic program would simply be to attend games, he said.

“That’s the best sign things are working well,” he said.

However, that has not been the case, he admitted.

Mr. Schroeder’s resignation caught Mr. Cohen “a little” by surprise, he said.

“He told me that he was ill and he needed to resign to deal with that,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Schroeder said: “I had some issues, which I like to keep under my hat. And I wound up stepping out before Ken got there.”

To fill the brief gap before Mr. Marlborough returned, the school appointed Lou Curra as a per diem substitute starting March 16, 2012. Mr. Curra is now the interim assistant superintendent for human resources.

A few weeks later, Mr. Marlborough returned.

Over the course of a school year, a school board is tasked with approving dozens upon dozens of appointments for positions in every facet of the district. The board’s decisions are based on the recommendation of the superintendent.

“Boards are urged, [by] the New York State School Board’s Association, to let the superintendent run the district,” Mr. Cohen said. “And that’s why ordinarily, in 95 percent of the cases, the board of ed will approve the recommendation of the superintendent, because they’re not in a position to make those judgments.”

ROBERT O’ROURK FILE PHOTO | Former athletic director Ken Marlborough was denied tenure by the school board in May, despite the recommendation of superintendent Steven Cohen.

Board members remain hushed on the tenure decision, citing it as a personnel issue.

Almost immediately after the board voted against the tenure recommendation for Mr. Marlborough, it raised a concern for Mr. McGrath, the board president.

“I think I knew it was going to be a contentious vote in that it was not going to be unanimous one way or another,” he said. “I was concerned about how the vote actually went because of the confusion.”

Mr. McGrath said he asked the administration to check with the school’s legal counsel to make sure how they voted was legal.

“At the end of the day, our job is to do these things right,” he said.

The legal counsel confirmed that the board had acted legally, Mr. McGrath said.

Mr. Marlborough appeared to have the support of the coaches within the athletic department, based on multiple interviews. While some coaches felt he had room for improvement in some areas, they still felt he did not deserve to lose his job.

“He was blamed [by board members] for a lot of things that weren’t his doing,” one source in the athletic department said.

Mr. Beran did not respond to a request to comment on his decision to vote against the tenure recommendation.

“I don’t understand why they really got rid of Kenny,” another source said. “I don’t get the board’s working.”

At the board’s next meeting after the tenure rejection, Ms. Lutjen, who also coaches girls varsity tennis, spoke in Mr. Marlborough’s defense.

“As a community member, teacher and coach in the district, I have never been as disappointed as I was at last week’s Board of Education meeting,” Ms. Lutjen said. “We currently have a staff member who works well and is supported by his fellow administrators and teaching staff. This person always demonstrates a high degree of character and integrity.”

Following the tenure vote, Mr. Marlborough remained on the job for about two months as the school began the transition to an interim.

“I think when we hire highly qualified administrators to do a job, we should allow them to do their job,” Ms. Lutjen said in a recent interview.

Asked if Mr. Marlborough was often being pulled in two directions, Mr. Cohen responded: “More than two. He was in a tough spot.”

Mr. Marlborough did not return calls for comment.

SAMANTHA BRIX FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River superintendent Steven Cohen and school board president Bill McGrath.

Mr. Cohen knew there was nothing left to say, that no last-ditch effort was going to persuade Mr. Schwartz to stay. They were sitting in Mr. Cohen’s office when Mr. Schwartz informed him in early September of his decision to resign from his second stint as an interim athletic director.

The news came as no surprise to Mr. Cohen.

In June, the board approved Mr. Schwartz to serve as an interim from July 1 through Dec. 31. Mr. Schwartz’s job was to begin the process of finding a permanent athletic director. The goal was to have someone lined up by late November.

The reason behind Mr. Schwartz’s resignation centered on an issue that’s caused plenty of controversy in recent years at Shoreham: selection classification.

That refers to the process of bringing students in seventh and eighth grade up to play a JV or varsity sport. An eighth-grader excelling on a varsity sport is not all that uncommon. In recent years, Kari Quinn (Class of 2012) scored 16 goals as an eighth-grader on the varsity soccer team. Nick Bottari, the only eighth-grader ever to play varsity baseball at Shoreham, excelled in his first season on the varsity team, in 2010. Many wrestlers and track & field runners have played varsity sports as middle school students.

As of now, the school does not have an official policy regarding classification, Mr. Cohen said. It was on the school board’s Dec. 3 agenda for discussion, but was pulled.

“The policy committee is trying to work one out and having a terrible go of it,” Mr. Cohen said.

The school board assigned Mr. Schwartz the responsibility of coming up with a guideline until an official policy could be hammered out.

Mr. Schwartz’s belief was generally against middle schoolers coming up to varsity sports, according to multiple coaches. That fell in line with former athletic director Jim Cranmer’s belief. When he started in 2005, he tried to cut back the number of students pulled up.

“When I came I had a very different philosophy on selection classification,” Mr. Cranmer said. “I spoke with the superintendent and she was on the same page as me as far as cutting back.”

In his first year, about 15 students were brought up, he said. That number dwindled to under 10 his second year and about six in his final year.

The guideline Mr. Schwartz put forward, according to Mr. Cohen, was “along the lines of middle schoolers shouldn’t go up to varsity unless they are starters.”

“That quickly kind of fell apart,” Mr. Cohen added. “But I insisted it remain until we have a policy, because we have to have something.”

Despite having Mr. Cohen’s support, Mr. Schwartz faced a backlash on how he handled the classification, several sources confirmed.

“He was getting personally attacked,” a source familiar with the situation said. “It was totally unprofessional.”

Mr. Schwartz declined to be interviewed for this story.

“The one thing I think I’ve said is that a district doesn’t need seven athletic directors,” Mr. McGrath said. “Obviously everyone has an opinion about athletics and I think that’s just kind of what I call the sports-centered mentality that’s present these days.”

Asked if he understood Mr. Schwartz’s reason behind quitting, Mr. Cohen said: “Absolutely.”

“He was unhappy,” Mr. Cohen added, declining to elaborate.

MICHAEL WHITE FILE PHOTO | School board member John Zukowski has come under fire during recent board meetings.

At recent board meetings following Mr. Rotanz’s dismissal as lacrosse coach, the public outcry has been directed toward Mr. Zukowski, who has a son that plays lacrosse and basketball. The Community Journal newsletter ran an editorial calling Mr. Zukowski a “bully,” after an incident in which he got up during a board meeting in a heated argument with a writer from the Journal after the writer questioned his motives regarding the athletic department.

Mr. Zukowski declined to comment for this story, saying the board’s rule is “we talk for everybody or we don’t talk at all.”

Asked about the perception, based on comments at school board meetings, of some of the athletic issues going back to one board member, Mr. Cohen said: “That’s what some people in the community think. There are seven board members. So even if that were true, it would mean the other six are basically in his tow.”

A few months before his May 28 tenure vote, Mr. Marlborough found himself caught up in a classification issue regarding the lacrosse teams, according to John Higgins, president of the Wildcat Athletic Club, which is a booster for the athletic program.

Mr. Higgins said before the spring season, the board approved girls lacrosse players coming up to the junior varsity, but then voted against boys coming up to JV.

Mr. Higgins said parents of a middle school student can apply to have their child brought up, subject to board approval. That’s supposed to take place 60 days in advance, he said. Once the board approves it, then the process can begin to determine whether the student reaches the criteria to come up and whether the coach is willing to bring up the player, Mr. Higgins said.

Mr. Higgins said in this specific case, the kids went through all the testing first and tried out for the team. When the coaches made selections, then it was brought before the board.

Mr. Higgins was one of six residents to speak at the board’s March 6 meeting who expressed dissatisfaction with the selection classification process.

“I didn’t talk to [board members] directly, but I kind of got the impression that felt like they got boxed in,” Mr. Higgins said.

Following Mr. Schwartz’s departure, the school quickly found the next interim, hiring William Denniston, a physical education teacher in Shoreham and middle school girls soccer coach, on Sept. 13.

In his brief tenure, Mr. Denniston has impressed the coaching staff, according to interviews with coaches. His ambition is to become a full-time athletic director, and Mr. Cohen called the opportunity a “trial by fire experience.” Some coaches viewed him as a young AD who could bring a no-agenda stability to the athletic program.

But the board’s preference was to hire someone from outside the district with more experience, coaches said.

Politics is a word that often pops up in describing the athletic director position in Shoreham. It’s a balancing act among the coaches, parents, administrators, board members and students. It’s also one of the highest-profile positions in any school district.

Mr. Cranmer said when he began as the AD in 2005, parents approached him immediately.

“They approached me because of things they demanded,” he said. “I told them I wasn’t going to make a move because they wanted me to make a move. I needed a year to assess things. And some parents didn’t like that response.”

Stability in the athletic director position is key for several reasons, education experts agree.

A tenured athletic director can make decisions and enforce policies without fear of losing the position. And a long-standing athletic director can cultivate relationships in the community, which is key to easing controversy as it pops up — or avoiding it altogether.

Such is the environment Mark Passamonte enters when he begins as the school’s athletic director in three weeks. By the time he’s eligible for tenure, it’ll be 2017, and Shoreham-Wading River will be closing in on two decades without a tenured athletic director.

That’s assuming he survives that long.

“I think he’s really well qualified and has a lot of potential,” Mr. Cohen said. “Whether he can weather the politics, that’s the $64,000 question.”

joew@timesreview.com

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