CornerKICKS: School’s no-comment response to coach’s absence is latest example of accountability dismissal for taxpayer-funded positions

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CornerKICKSJoe Trost, columnist

It’s an ongoing issue within the public education “kingdom” that only seems to get worse with each passing year, the same two-step dance and phony playbook script with no common-sense end in sight.

When it comes to public tax dollars which public administrators are paid from – including many inflated future pension payments which the public is on the hook for – it might be time to relook at how public education and their administrators handle those hired, fired, suspended and/or paid to go away.

The latest example centers around Plainfield North girls soccer coach Steve Berry, who was absent for his team’s game against Joliet Central on April 30.

Did he have a dentist appointment or a family emergency? Did he miss the team bus or oversleep? Maybe he had a club coaching conflict and had to pick one?

Or was the second-year coach suspended, as multiple Plainfield sources have suggested? If so, why?

Plainfield Community School District 202 director of community relations Tom Hernandez said in an email that “we do not comment on personnel matters” when asked why Berry was not on the sidelines.

Hernandez’s response came after Plainfield North athletic director Ron Lear was oddly silent throughout the week when asked for comment. And then there’s Berry, who texted nonstop throughout the winter of 2016 when he was looking for a high school girls soccer coaching position.

But you probably already guessed it, there was no response from Berry when asked why he wasn’t on the sideline for the April 30 game.

Hernandez is a well-respected, sharp communications professional, who spent nine years as a reporter for the Joliet Herald News, Pioneer Press and Beacon News before moving into the world of communications as a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, St. Charles School District and Plainfield School District in 2006.

He gets it from both sides – as a reporter and public relations standpoint. His job is to protect the Plainfield brand and even deflect if need be.

“I can tell you that you are getting some misinformation,” added Hernandez in the first no-comment email response that he copied Plainfield Supt. Lane Abrell, asst. supt. Tony Manville, Plainfield North principal Ross Draper, school board member Kevin Kirberg and Lear on.

“Are you able to address why the head coach was not at the April 30 game,” I again asked.

“No, sorry,” Hernandez said. “We cannot comment further.”

Remember, we’re not talking about a private school or private corporation here. This no-show happened at a public event paid for by public tax dollars for a public high school program, whose public employee is paid for by the public’s dime.

And trust me, this isn’t the day of the random science teacher coaching soccer to help out. Many high school coaches at premier districts are making $10,000-plus before camp money – if not more – for a three-month season.

If this was a nonstory, Berry would want to kill it – as would Plainfield North and district leadership. Abrell did just that with a Joliet Herald News reporter back in June 2017 when questioned regarding Jane Crowe’s controversial nonrenewal as girls soccer coach.

The beloved and highly-successful coach, who led the program to a 60-game conference winning streak that rivaled the likes of the combined St. Charles girls soccer program back in the 1990s – was let go in a political powerplay by Lear.

So I again ask the basic, straight forward and very fair question: Why would any public school leader want the public questioning the absence of a publicly-paid staff member if it was nothing?

Was there a safety issue? Was there a report logged? Unless it was a Department of Children and Family Services or medical-related report, which are protected by specific laws, a public school shouldn’t be hiding the reason of a public absence of a head coach in a public arena.

High school head coaches rarely miss games, and when they do no one is afraid to address why – unless it wasn’t voluntarily. (Note: If you don’t believe me now, make sure to read the entire column and you’ll see example A.)

It’s in the best interest of the public – the ultimate boss – and really for the coach and public school involved to provide a factual response vs. no comment. Because if it’s truly nothing, it’s unfair to allow rumors to run rampant about a coach, teacher or public school leader.

COACHES UNION COMING SOON?: Currently, all high school coaching positions are at-will positions. And at times, personalities, politics and power play major roles in the decision making of who obtain and retain these positions, which impact future pension payouts.

With the news of former Loyola girls soccer coach Craig Snower, who was fired mid-season last spring over allegations of inappropriate comments to players, filing a lawsuit last week seeking more than $250,000 in damages, some coaches are asking if it’s finally time for a coaches union?

According to Snower’s lawsuit, which was filed in the Cook County Circuit Court and is scheduled to have a status hearing on July 3, the longtime coach seeks to recover damages as a result of Loyola terminating his employment “based on false, unfounded and unsubstantiated accusations of misconduct.”

The lawsuit alleges that Loyola “recklessly and without reasonable cause” reported him to DCFS, which in turn called the local police and led to mass media coverage. The call to DCFS was leaked to media that night.

Wilmette Deputy Police Chief Patrick Collins told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday that an official at Loyola contacted DCFS and the agency, as it’s supposed to, reached out to the police.

“Based on the interviews, there was insufficient evidence,” Collins said.

DCFS’ investigation was closed and labeled “unfounded.”

Snower became the second coach to sue a school this school year, with longtime Highland Park tennis coach Stephen Rudman filing suit against District 113 in October.

So is it time for coaches in all sports to rally together for some additional protection? Who is actually advocating for coaches these days?

All it takes is one false accusation to ruin a coaching and possible professional teaching career, not to mention stain a family’s public reputation.

IHSA SUNDAY NO-GO: The Class 3A regional final game between Marist and Sandburg was postponed Saturday due to lightning.

Both schools agreed to play at 2 p.m. Sunday, but later found out from Illinois High School Association (IHSA) assistant executive director Beth Sauser that the game would be played Monday. The winner of the match will then have to play a sectional semifinal game (Round of 32) on Tuesday.

“The IHSA has had a longstanding policy of not hosting State Series contests on Sundays,” IHSA spokesman Matt Troha said. “We believe there have only been three exceptions granted by our board in two sports (volleyball & softball), and both were at the state final level when the teams were already at the state final site. The IHSA Girls Soccer State Series schedule is setup to provide a rain make-up date on Monday, which is why we did not feel that it rose to a level to that required consideration for the game to be moved to Sunday.”

If there’s any season that should use Sundays, it’s the spring – especially during the regular season. It’s an already condensed season due to starting games in the winter with unpredictable weather; some programs losing a full week to spring break; ACT testing; and losing another weekend to prom. 

The latest game rescheduled by weather this spring will now take place at 3:15 p.m. Monday on Marist’s 55-yard width turf field, because Sandburg refused to play on Marist’s quality grass soccer field. Why? Because it plays on turf all year. The stadium field has a prescheduled event later in the evening.

Sandburg will have to get out of school early and working parents will need to get out of work early to attend, because of not being able to play on Sunday and Sandburg’s refusal to play a 4:30 p.m. game on the grass field.

Imagine a high school refusing to play on turf 10 years ago when turf was relatively new, because a school played on grass all season. While I understand grass and turf are different, it’s the same for both teams – and club soccer plays on grass 90 percent of its season. Club soccer features high school soccer players, so I’m not saying – I’m just saying.

What will be even more interesting is to see if sectional host Andrew will do the right thing and push the one semifinal featuring the winner of this game vs. Lincoln-Way West back to Wednesday night. Proper health and safe recovery for youth athletes should always be the first focus.

Not only that, if Sandburg wins, its seniors and their families will be rushing to make its prescheduled graduation ceremony on Tuesday night.

SAYING GOODBYE: After a ton of high-profile openings last summer, here is the latest from the coaching wire:

*Pam Melinauskas is leaving Curie, expect to see her on the Maine South staff next year.

*Phil Wicyk is leaving Romeoville, expect to see him at Glenbard West next year – maybe as the new girls soccer coach.

*Christine Medunycia retired from coaching at Taft.

*Mike O’Shea resigned at Joliet West.

*Matt Kocourek resigned at Bolingbrook.

*Dean Burrier is not expected to return as head coach at Elk Grove next spring.

Stay tuned for more.

STORYLINES EVERYWHERE: Sitting in the stands at Glenbard East on Friday night, former Young coach Spero Mandakas had to have a wide range of emotions after watching his former team upset the Rams to capture the program’s first Class 3A regional title.

Mandakas, who moved to Glenbard North last fall and is the head boys and assistant girls soccer coach, put in 100s of hours helping build the Young girls program. The victory came at the expense of Glenbard East, whose coach Kent Overby has been a key resource during Mandakas’ transition from the Chicago Public Schools system to the suburbs.

Ironically, Young first-year coach Ross LaBauex, who received a helping hand from Mandakas during the transition season, wasn’t on the sideline to share in the excitement because he was attending the funeral of his wife’s uncle. (Note example A: There was no issue obtaining a reason why a head coach was missing on the sideline for this game.)

THE UGLY PERCEPTION: This morning, the sectional coordinators and board of the Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association (IHSSCA) will meet to talk about All-Sectional, All-State and candidates for All-Midwest and All-America players.

The pay-to-play award system only recognizes those players whose coaches pay the IHSSCA membership dues. Every coach that joins is guaranteed at least one honorable mention All-Sectional player, no matter whether the program actually has a player worthy of a true postseason honor.

It’s important to note that as IHSSCA president Brian Papa, who is the head girls soccer coach at Downers North, reminds me all the time: “These are the association’s awards.”

Sadly, however, the soccer community has marketed these as true “All-State” awards when not every player or program has an opportunity to be a part of the “All-State” team unless their coach pays to play.

Can anyone say pay-to-play Country Club All-State Awards?

Let me again remind everyone that football, basketball and other high school sports do not have a payment system built around their “All-State” awards. It’s the ugly fact that money is factored into an award dangled for a player, who has no control outside of their play on the field.

With the dumpster fire that U.S Soccer has become around pay-to-play club schemes and the national college pay-to-play scandal, I find it hard to believe that any IHSSCA member sitting in that room today doesn’t realize the perception that its pay-to-play award system looks worse than a varsity coach being ejected during a junior varsity game and missing his team’s season opener.

And I actually didn’t think it was ever possible to top that one.

CornerKICKS will appear on Sundays. Contact Joe Trost at joetrost@gmail.com.

Bio on columnist: Joe Trost was an award-winning writer at Star Newspapers, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune and ESPN.com. Locally, he is a three-time statewide IHSSCA Media Person of the Year and founder of the PepsiCo Showdown, the largest high school sports series in the U.S.

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