The Suffern Board of Education voted Tuesday night to appoint current girls track and cross-country coach Jeff Dempsey to also take over the boys program embattled coach Joe Biddy had run for 49 years.
The controversial move came just four weeks before three newly elected school board members take office.
The vote was 4-1 with the board president and vice-president absent. It occurred after five members of the public, who had been instructed not to speak about particular personnel, criticized the proposed move. In part, some argued having one head coach to oversee two programs was impractical and unfair to athletes.
Many pro-Biddy people filled the Suffern Middle School cafeteria. Members of his team wore T-shirts with his likeness and the words “Save Biddy.”
Proponents, who had lobbied the board to retain the veteran coach, had thought the recent election of the three trustees had saved Biddy’s job.
They voiced displeasure that the board did not wait until the new board took office to hold a vote.
Resident Andrew Dale presented a list obtained from the district’s website of past fall sports appointment dates going back to 2007.
None had occurred prior to July 5 and some had not occurred until September.
“This board has become tone deaf to students,” he later said.
Newly elected board member Angus Mackenzie said he was “shocked” by the vote.
He termed holding a vote without a full board and before new board members took office was “preposterous.”
Mackenzie, a Suffern graduate who threw the shot put for Biddy, said he’ll call for the board to interview Biddy.
Biddy has said he wants to speak to the board about any allegations against him but the board has not allowed him to do so.
Mackenzie said the board had not afforded Biddy “due process” and had been subject to “innuendo.”
Former Pearl River athletic director and coach Tom Doherty scolded the board and administration, asking, “What is going on? How did you allow this to happen?
“Nobody had the courage to stop this madness. I can’t believe this just happened. These poor kids are stuck in the middle next year. It’s disgraceful,” Doherty asserted.
With Theresa DiFalco and Clarke Osborn absent, Tom Donnelly, Matthew Kern, Teresa Monahan and Paul Shapiro voted for Dempsey’s appointment without comment.
The lone trustee who voted against the move was Dr. Amany Messieha Dgheim.
She questioned how a single coach could oversee both teams when there are times the boys and girls teams run at different meets.
Earlier, resident Joseph Gravagna, a former Rockland Community College, Manhattan College, Fordham University, Queens College and Holy Cross High School (Queens) tennis coach said for Dempsey to handle both roles would be “flat out impossible.”
But athletic director Andy Guccione, who is believed to have initiated Biddy’s ouster but has refused to speak publicly about it, said the district was changing from having two head cross-country coaches and two assistant cross-country coaches to one head and three assistants and there would be adequate personnel to attend to both teams.
Guccione said any conflicts would be worked out and he noted winter track, which has more athletes, has only one head coach (Dempsey).
Guccione linked the early date for appointing coaches this year to insurance coverage, pointing to coaches coaching kids during the summer. Official practices don’t begin until about Aug. 20, though, he said.
Guccione was mocked with widespread chuckles after saying he attended cross-country practices, a reference to being in contact with students.
Messieha Dgheim had suggested he speak to every athlete about their experience but he said he could speak to seniors but didn’t have the time to speak to all.
Dempsey’s appointment is laid out in a unique “memorandum of agreement.” It expires at the conclusion of the 2018-19 school year.
Under it, Dempsey will be paid $12,170 next fall for coaching both the boys and girls teams. The document states the memorandum will not be used as “precedent in any future proceeding for any purpose.”
Dempsey, a teacher in the district, declined comment earlier Tuesday and was not at the meeting.
He had attended multiple board meetings during which protesters, including former district administrators, administrators and coaches from other school districts, former athletes, parents and current athletes, had called for Biddy to be retained.
Biddy, an Armory Coaches Hall of Fame and Rockland Sports Hall of Fame member, retired from teaching in 2016.
Before the meeting, Biddy said he was aware of the contract. He attended the meeting but made no comment during it.
“There’s a new board. At the meeting, they’ll try to table this until after July 1 but they probably won’t be able to. That’s all I can say now,” Biddy had earlier said.
Parent Anthony Giardina, who has helped lead the pro-Biddy forces, said making appointments before the three newly elected board members Melissa Reimer, Mackenzie and Donald Cairns take office contrasts with past board practice.
“It’s all egos. They don’t care about the kids,” he said. “It’s horrible. It’s great politics.”
The district has not spelled out its problems with Biddy.