Controversy over high school soccer coach position raises questions of retaliation


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At the end of June, Andy Pelosi, departing North Salem Board of Education member and volunteer North Salem High School JV girls soccer coach, received an email from Superintendent Ken Freeston letting him know that he would no longer be needed as coach of the JV girls team come September. The decision, which came less than two weeks after Pelosi voted ‘no’ to extending Freeston’s contract for an additional year, shocked community members, who say Pelosi has been a beloved and successful coach in the community for years and raised questions about the motivation behind the decision.

During the public comment session of the district’s July 1 annual reorganization meeting, in which the Board swears in new members, elects board officers, and makes statutory appointments, Luisa Kroll, Pelosi’s wife, said “I want it on the record that I believe this was retaliation.”

In an interview with The North Salem Post, Freeston said he “absolutely denies” that the decision to remove Pelosi was one of retaliation. Instead, he explained the decision as one the District was required to make when a newly hired teacher recently expressed an interest in coaching soccer. Pelosi declined a request for an interview for this story.

“It’s not in the contract specifically but it’s in labor law,” Freeston said. “If a job is within a bargaining unit, we can only go outside the union if there are no other applicants from the union.”

The bargaining unit Freeston referred to is the North Salem Teachers’ Association (NSTA) union. Jim Savarese, NSTA president, said, “union contracts with school districts often determine how coaching vacancies are handled. In the case of our NSTA contract, it’s covered in Article XXII, District Openings.”

That section of the contract states, “while preference shall not be given because of service in the District, the Board shall consider such service on any such application.” According to Savarese, “there is no requirement in the North Salem School District that coaching positions go to union members over non-union members.”

Freeston maintains that appointing a non-union member to a coaching position when a union member has expressed interest in the role “would likely be challenged by the union.”

“In North Salem we follow labor law, and we believe this decision is required by law,” Freeston said.

The timeline

On the evening of Tuesday, June 15, Pelosi and Freeston, along with other North Salem administrators and BOE members, attended a ‘going away’ happy hour at Primavera in Croton Falls, in honor of Pelosi, who was stepping down from the BOE effective June 30 and Dr. Stephanie Bell, who was leaving her position as Asst. Principal of Pequenakonck Elementary at the end of the school year. On a community Facebook post, Kroll noted that Freeston had joked with Pelosi at that event about his coaching position.

The following day, Wednesday, June 16, the Board of Education held a roll call vote to determine whether to extend Freeston’s contract for an additional year, ending June 30, 2023. Pelosi and one other Board member, Jennifer Binette, voted no to the extension. The other five Board members voted yes.

On Friday, June 25, the newly hired teacher met with Athletic Director Denise Kiernan, according to Freeston. In that meeting, Freeston says the teacher expressed an interest in coaching soccer. Kiernan, who was on vacation last week, could not be reached for comment for this story.

The following Monday, June 28, Freeston said he learned of the teacher’s coaching interest from Kiernan. “Denise made the recommendation to me for the new hire,” Freeston said, adding that he had not yet met the new hire. Freeston sent an email to Pelosi letting him know of the decision and “thanked him for his service.”

While decisions about coaching appointments are typically issued from Principal DiGrandi, Freeston said he delivered the news in this instance, as he thought it important to let Pelosi know as soon as he knew, adding, “I volunteered to do that because I didn't want to put [Kiernan] or [DiGrandi] in the position of making a hiring decision relative to a sitting board member.”

When asked whether he had previously given Pelosi verbal confirmation that he would remain as JV coach, Freeston told The North Salem Post that he didn’t remember. He acknowledged the happy hour that Kroll referenced. At the happy hour, Freeston said district administrators and Board members “all had kind things to say about each other.” Freeston also mentioned another event earlier this year, in which he “commented on how many successful games [Pelosi] had won as coach.” Freeston acknowledged that Pelosi is “widely regarded as a top-tier coach,” but said that the issue is “not about the quality of his coaching; it’s about who has first right of refusal in the teachers’ bargaining unit.”

Community response

Public backlash to the decision began last Wednesday, June 30, when Kroll shared on a North Salem community Facebook group a petition that a NSHS student had created to reinstate Pelosi as JV girls soccer coach. Within hours, the post had received dozens of comments in support of Pelosi and over 100 signatures. To date, the petition has received over 250 signatures. Comments on the petition detail the positive impact Pelosi has had on players in the district for more than a decade.

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The morning after Kroll’s Facebook post, Board of Education president Deb D’Agostino addressed the issue in her opening remarks at the July 1 board meeting. Without providing context for meeting attendees who may have been unaware of the controversy, D’Agostino began, “as a courtesy to our colleague Mr. Pelosi, what the Board will do is interview the two candidates for JV soccer coach. We will set up an interview committee that will be made up by board members and also ask Mr. DiGrandi and Ms. Kiernan to join us, and then we will make a recommendation to Ken [Freeston] as to the appropriate selection of JV soccer coach. We don’t normally do this. This is a courtesy to Mr. Pelosi, our colleague.” D’Agostino did not elaborate on the criteria the candidates would be evaluated against or how the Board would account for the perceived legal challenges Freeston cited as a factor in the initial decision.

During the Board of Ed meeting’s public comment period, community members, including parents and student athletes, challenged the District’s decision and shared impassioned personal stories of Pelosi’s contribution to girls soccer in North Salem. Joe Conway, a longstanding board member of the North Salem Soccer Club, said he sees the decision as one that “shortchanges our girls coming up through the JV system.” Mary Molina, who co-coaches a North Salem Soccer Club girls U15 team with Conway, said, “I represent many parents who are afraid to speak because of retaliation. Something is going on and none of the parents understand what that is.”

Molina’s daughter Ellie, an NSHS alumna and senior trainer at Bedford Youth Soccer, said, “I know that teachers are allowed to coach if they want to but if there’s already someone filling that position, why get rid of that person? I think if a new person comes in and indicates an interest, they should be interviewed.” Molina added that Pelosi has coached many of the girls who will play on this year’s JV team since kindergarten and that she felt that relationship would be a critical part of the team’s success.

Community member Marcy Miller, an active participant at North Salem Board of Ed meetings, said, “the public deserves to know if the Superintendent did not reappoint Andy Pelosi because of how he voted as a board member. The BOE should want to get at that answer more than anyone, instead of covering it up by this mock interview of two coaches as a ‘courtesy to their colleague.’ The BOE doesn’t interview coaches. Why are they doing that now?"

Freeston acknowledged that the Board’s decision to interview the two candidates is “a complete change,” but characterized it as a decision made “in light of community support for Andy.”

From the many personal stories shared during the public comment session of the July 1 meeting, Freeston said that his biggest takeaway was that “the relationship between players and coaches, when done well, is life changing.” Now, it will be up to the BOE to make a recommendation as to which coaching relationship they see fit to pursue for North Salem High School’s JV girls soccer players.

This article has been corrected from an earlier version which said that the petition was started by an NSHS alumna. It was created by an NSHS student.


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