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9-9-12 NJ School athletic directors on shaky ground

The Record - N.J. school athletic directors on shaky ground

The Record

Englewood’s decision almost two weeks ago to get rid of its athletic director will save more than $144,000 a year and may seem like a tempting solution to cash-strapped North Jersey school districts.

But school officials throughout the region, as well as two top state athletic officials, say Englewood is going for a quick fix that won’t win over many followers.

“I don’t see how we could maintain such programs without an athletic director,” said John J. Keenan, superintendent of Northern Highlands Regional High School, which covers Allendale, Ho-Ho-Kus, Saddle River and Upper Saddle River. “The complexities are far-reaching.”

The job of athletic director, which can pay as much as $200,000 a year, has become increasingly complex. School districts offer a wider array of sports and must comply with regulations governing academic eligibility, home-schooled athletes and transfers, and safeguarding athletes’ health. During that expansion, athletic directors moved into the ranks of administrators with higher salaries.

Luxury or necessity?

But as school budgets shrink, athletic directors are being viewed by some districts as a luxury they can’t afford. To save money, districts are asking athletic directors to take on more tasks, or, in some cases, divvying up their job among other administrators, teachers and coaches. Wearing different hats while keeping tabs on district sports programs can be daunting, district officials say.

Yvonne Sheard, who made $144,878 in salary and benefits before being laid off, was in charge of all varsity and junior varsity athletics in Englewood. She also supervised the health and physical education department as well as district security guards. Sheard, who had been with the district since 2009, was among more than 100 school employees who lost their jobs in the past two months in layoffs and outsourcing as the district sliced away at a projected $4 million deficit.

Englewood Superintendent Donald Carlisle said high school Assistant Principal Joe Amental, a former coach, will serve as athletic director for fall sports. The district’s dean of students will supervise health and physical education while the director of facilities, who already was in charge of most school security guards, will now supervise them all.

Sheard, an educator for more than 25 years, was among the top-paid administrators in the district. The median salary of athletic directors in Bergen and Passaic counties was about $125,000 for the 2011-12 school year, according to state payroll data, with the highest salary reaching nearly $200,000.

The highest salaries earned by athletic directors can exceed a superintendents’ pay, which is under a state cap imposed by Governor Christie and has forced some to take a pay cut and caused others to leave the state. But, like Sheard and Amental, most athletic directors now fill two or more administrative posts, which officials say saves money.

Greg Komeshok, who makes more than $196,000 a year, is Passaic’s athletic director, its vocational education supervisor, its art and music supervisor and its adult education supervisor. He also oversees student-teacher placements.

“At one time they had four people doing this job,” he said.

But at least one school district that made a principal into an athletic director learned how overwhelming the job can be.

Hawthorne, a district about the same size as Englewood with 2,500 students, directed its high school principal, with help from a trainer, to supervise the district’s sports programs when its athletic director took a job in another district.

“It was a struggle and a strain,” Superintendent Robert Mooney recalled. “We got through the year but we didn’t want to do it a second year because it was too much.”

Hawthorne this year hired Art Maz­zac­ca, a Teaneck football coach, as the new athletic director with an annual salary of $98,000. But Maz­zac­ca also must supervise health and physical education and the social studies department and teach one social studies class. Mooney said he wishes Maz­zac­ca wore fewer hats but that the district can’t afford to hire separate people to do those jobs.

“We’re doing some things that we don’t like to do,” Mooney said. “We’re stretching our resources a lot. We’ve had big state budget cuts over the last three years. It puts a lot of pressure on people.”

It’s the same in other districts, where athletic directors split their time as administrators and teachers.

Phil Paspalas made about $132,000 last year as assistant principal and athletic director at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, which has about 800 students, and is one of two high schools in the Pascack Valley Regional district. His counterpart at the larger Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, Tom Gattoni, teaches social studies and made more than $156,000 last school year.

Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent P. Erik Gundersen said Paspalas is newer to the job and oversees fewer sports programs but has more of a challenge juggling his duties.

“It’s certainly not an easy job because both jobs are quite different,” he said. “It’s not a perfect system, but for us it’s worked.”

How the job has grown

Many athletic directors supervise the district’s health and physical education department and nearly all have at least one other duty. But all districts seem to have one point person in charge of everything related to sports.

The job of athletic director has become increasingly more complex over the years, officials say. Years ago, athletic directors mainly worked with coaches to coordinate game schedules and hire referees. Today’s athletic directors do that as well as ensure that sports teams comply with district, state and federal regulations.

Athletic directors also supervise far more sports teams offered to both boys and girls with junior varsity and varsity teams. And athletic directors must ensure that all of those student athletes are academically and medically eligible to play.

Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale has one of the highest-paid athletic directors in North Jersey. Robert Williams made more than $168,000 during the 2011-12 school year supervising 19 sports while overseeing clubs and extracurricular activities for the district’s 1,350 students.

Keenan said Williams ensures coaches have the proper training and safety certificates, arranges transportation for away games and works holidays and weekends when students have games and tournaments. He also said Williams is the district’s liaison to its four communities when groups want to use school athletic facilities.

Steven Timko, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, said he knows of no other position that spends more hours on the job than an athletic director and questioned assigning another full-time administrator that role.

“The season started Aug. 15 and they were doing prep before that. Their day starts early in the morning, and when everyone is going home at 3:30 p.m., that’s the start of their second day. Look at the public relations, dealing with the press and parents.”

The athletic association, which sets rules and regulations that govern high school athletics, counts more than 400 public and private schools as members. With the exception of a few charter schools, a vocational school and a parochial school, all have designated athletic directors listed as contacts on the association’s website.

The Northern Valley Regional School District has two athletic directors — one each at Demarest and Old Tappan high schools who each were paid $169,130 for the 2011-12 year.

Northern Valley Superintendent Christopher Nagy said the athletic directors represent a cost savings to the district because they have taken over the duties once performed by a $120,000-a-year health and physical education supervisor who was cut several years ago. He said the district has no plans to merge the athletic directors’ jobs.

“At a certain point, you cut into the muscle,” he said.

Email: bakerr@northjersey.com

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