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Coaching cuts force schools to punt

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Several coaches on Levy list for non-renewal

By Jenna McKenna

When you go to a district tournament game at the end of each sporting season, the Florida High School Athletic Association reminds you of a few important facts.

“Interscholastic events are an extension of the classroom,” intones the game announcer.

The purpose is to remind those in attendance how much sports and school go together.

Several schools in Levy County will have a tough time with their extended classrooms next year. According to a list obtained from the personnel department of the Levy County Schools district office, 10 of the teachers who are not returning next year are coaches. At least two other teachers are retiring or leaving extended DROP, bringing the total to at least 12 head and assistant coaches out of contract, retiring or exiting extended DROP.

Hardest hit is Bronson Middle High School. Listed as not returning, for various reasons, are Athletic Director Phillip Knight, football head coach Al Cooksey, baseball head coach James (Mike) Pogue, varsity football assistant Jeromi Birtikidis and varsity basketball assistant Brent Walker (who teaches ESE math and history at Summit Academy).

Of Bronson's five coaches, Cooksey and Walker have been advised by administrators that they may be eligible for rehire once they complete requirements for their professional certificates. Teachers who don't come through an education program in college receive a three-year temporary certification that allows them to complete requirements for the professional certificate while on the job. Walker has completed his subject matter certification, but still needs his ESE (exceptional student education) certificate; until then, he is considered “out of field,” a condition that can only occur for one year during a teacher's career.

Cooksey, who had not taught for a full year at a Florida public school prior to coming to Bronson, says a clerical error in his personnel file led to district administrators here advising him his temporary certificate would run out in the 2009-2010 school year, rather than the expected 2010-2011 year. Regardless, he says he will make it his urgent priority to complete necessary tests in time to be eligible for rehire.

“I'm gonna stay here until we turn Bronson football around,” he said.

Williston varsity basketball head coach David Vespignani, an intensive reading teacher, is in a similar situation. He said, and WHS Principal John Lott confirmed, that he is nearly done with his certificate, and will be eligible for rehire at that time.

That's the good news.

The bad news is, Knight, Pogue and Birtikidis will definitely not be back. All say they were given no reason for their dismissal. Knight acknowledges he had not completed his certificate, but says he expects to have completed the tests before his temporary certificate expires on June 30. Knight's mother, who died of cancer this past year, was diagnosed at the end of his first school year at Bronson, and he chose to prioritize her care over his own academics.

“I made that decision and I've got to live with it,” he said.

“But I thought they might have at least waited until the end of the school year.”

Knight, a 1981 Bronson alumnus, had been at BHS as an assistant coach from 1984 through the 2008 school year, and was a volunteer coach until four years ago, when he became an algebra teacher. He became AD two years ago, has had good performance reviews, and is known for his good relationship with students and players.

“All I really wanted to do was teach at my alma mater,” he said.

Bronson Principal Valerie Boughanem said that while Knight's certification was part of the issue, the fact that he was not offered a renewed contract could be because the school was overstaffed in certain positions according to the district formula. Pogue, on annual contract, could have been non-renewed to make room for another teacher on a professional contract.

Boughanem says she'll work hard to find appropriate replacements for the coaches Bronson is losing.

“We will definitely have coaches,” she said.

“I understand the importance of athletics; they're a very important part of the student experience as far as teaching character skills and being a team member.”

Chiefland High School is in as bad a bind as Bronson. With the elimination of one contract, PE instructor Emily Gore, CHS lost the girls' head volleyball, basketball and track and field coach. Add the retirement of boys' head track coach Wendell Corbin (from Chiefland Elementary) and the exit of golf coach Don Stewart from extended DROP, and CHS has to replace five head coaches right now.

Gore, a 2000 Chiefland graduate who is completing her fourth year at the school, says she has had consistently high reviews and was offered another annual contract this past year, despite being eligible for a professional contract at that time.

“I agreed to it at the time, but now I wish I'd argued for the professional contract,” she said.

Gore is hoping a chance remains that she could be rehired, more for her students' and players' sake than for her own. As the girls' PE instructor, she believes her presence makes girls more comfortable taking physical education. As a coach, she believes her knowledge, attention and work ethic – she was an All-State point guard for Chiefland during her scholastic career – give her players confidence that she can lead them.

“I think they're concerned that the next person won't be as knowledgeable, or put forth as much effort,” she said.

“There are some students coming up that I really wanted to help get into college. Some kids don't have much support at home, and if you don't do some stuff for them, it won't get done. I don't know who's going to look out for them now.”

CHS Principal Pam Asbell said she was saddened both for the departing coaches and their players.

“This is a hurtful thing for them,” she said.

“These are important people in the school and the community and we need to be sure we find quality people to come behind them to take over as teachers and coaches. I don't want to make a hasty decision and put someone in that position until I have the opportunity to seek out the best person.”