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Knoch dumps girls soccer coaches

Rob Amen
| Sunday, April 20, 2003

Becky Pederson and Patricia Neubert were not afraid to voice their dissatisfaction with South Butler County School District over what they considered inadequate soccer facilities.

They even questioned the district's devotion to meeting standards of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funds.

Neubert believes that's the reason the school board essentially fired them as Knoch High School's girls soccer coaches April 9.

"It has to be an issue," Neubert said. "(The administration) wasn't even thinking about Title IX until we brought it up."

A source familiar with Pederson's and Neubert's case who is close to the Knoch athletic department also said he believes that Title IX played an integral part in the board's decision to advertise openings for the positions.

"I know they brought up Title IX with the school board," said the source, a member of the boys and girls soccer boosters, who wished to remain unnamed. "I feel very strongly that that has a lot do with it."

This comes on the heels of a two-month investigation by the Valley News Dispatch that found only one of the Alle-Kiski Valley's 15 public schools districts -- Fox Chapel Area -- meets Title IX proportionality standards. Districts still could comply by meeting one of two other standards, which often are more difficult for administrators to get a read on compliance.

Knoch High School failed to meet proportionality standards because boys comprised 53.3 percent of its student body but 57.1 percent of its athletes in 2002-03. Title IX calls for no more than a 3.5 percent difference. South Butler barely missed compliance with a 3.8 percent difference.

The district spent almost $134,500 on boys sports this school year, slightly more than $80,100 on girls sports and about $47,200 on co-ed sports. Title IX experts said such a difference raises a red flag even though the law does not require equal spending on boys and girls sports.

Board, administration deny retaliation

School Board President Glenn Lang and district Superintendent Patrick O'Toole denied any retaliation against Pederson and Neubert for making Title IX complaints, and said their complaints had nothing to do with the board's decision.

"We personally don't believe we have any Title IX violations in our school district," Lang said. "We have a very even mix of sports between boys and girls."

Lang said it is the board's right to advertise coaching positions every year, as the jobs carry one-year contracts.

Yet, the jobs are not advertised -- new coaches are not sought -- on a yearly basis.

"We look at various things when we evaluate them," Lang said. "Participation of students, input from parents, (from) students themselves, what kind of a team player the coaches are. We look at all those things."

Pederson served as the head coach of Knoch's girls soccer team for 10 of the past 11 years. Neubert was an assistant coach the past five years.

Neubert said Knoch Athletic Director Dave Bracco had recommended to the school board that they be rehired.

"He said he didn't know why the position was opened," Pederson said.

Numerous phone messages left for Bracco at his home and office were not returned.

Lang said that he was aware Bracco evaluated the coaches after the season. "We take that as input," he said. "But just input."

He said the board is free to make its decision and received no recommendations from Bracco or the administration before doing so.

However, three other school board members -- Brian Kanterman, Jeff Graham and Mary Clare Habenicht -- said the board relies upon such recommendations to make its decisions.

"The decisions the board makes generally aren't arbitrary," Habenicht said.

"I'm sure you're aware the school board doesn't do the interviews and legwork that the administrators do," Kanterman said. "The board doesn't pick and choose. The people who are paid to run the school need to run it, and we're just there to oversee the policies."

Coaches won't reapply

O'Toole said Pederson and Neubert are welcome to reapply.

The women said they will not.

"They fulfilled their one-year commitment," O'Toole said. "Now we are looking at other candidates.

"They aren't being terminated from their contract, but they are not automatically being renewed."

Several athletic directors in the A-K Valley, whose schools also handle coaches with one-year contracts, said once a coaching position is advertised, those coaches generally are not rehired.

Lang would not say whether Pederson and Neubert would be rehired if they applied, saying, "We will look at the qualifications of the applicants."

Habenicht, for one, said she would vote to rehire the coaches and is sad to see Pederson go.

Her daughter, Shannon, now a junior at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, played for Pederson. Habenicht said that she and other parents "generally liked Becky."

"We didn't have any trouble," Habenicht said. "I can tell you I think Becky has done a great job."

Parents of players on this season's team, however, were not so sure.

The mother of junior Candice Jenkins declined comment when asked if she or her daughter ever had problems with Pederson or Neubert.

And Becky DeSantis, mother of senior standout Jessica DeSantis, while saying "Becky's heart is in the right place," added, "There were a lot of unhappy parents from what I understand on our team the last year or two; I'd say particularly this last year."

She said she believed half the parents supported Pederson and half opposed her.

Complaints ranged from game strategies to what parents deemed a lack of coaching expertise, Becky DeSantis said.

Coaches listed concerns

After years of arguing her and Pederson's case for improved facilities and athletic fields, Neubert said she approached the district's Title IX coordinator, Assistant Superintendent Lyn Logelin, in September.

On Jan. 30, she and Pederson submitted a formal, 11-page document listing their concerns to Logelin.

It said, in part:

  • Locker room facilities for home and away football teams are provided, but facilities are not provided for home or away soccer teams.

    Restroom facilities for soccer consist of a single portable toilet.

    Away teams must use the bus as a changing facility.

  • In constructing the new Primary Center, the district eliminated soccer practice and game facilities with no plan for their replacement, while it included renovation improvements in the athletic complex used by the football program.

  • Bleacher facilities at the football stadium have been improved or replaced while requests for signs designating home and away seating on soccer bleachers were ignored.

  • The district, citing a lack of funds, required as a condition of construction of soccer practice and game fields an expenditure of between $5,000 and $15,000 by the Knoch Soccer Boosters. At the same time, the district approved $120,000 to be spent on restroom construction at the football stadium.

    Changes made

    Logelin wrote back to Pederson and Neubert on Feb. 27 and said, "The monitoring of policies and a request for written follow-up from administration was deemed appropriate after reviewing your report."

    Logelin also wrote in March that the school board was to hear first readings of revised and new policies regarding nondiscrimination.

    The next day, Bracco composed a memo for Logelin and O'Toole outlining where and when teams practice and play, access to medical facilities and locker rooms, and an explanation of the soccer boosters' suggestion to help pay for new soccer fields.

    On April 9 -- the same day the school board dumped Pederson and Neubert -- directors agreed to cover all costs of new soccer fields.

    Facilities mostly were the same for the Knoch boys and girls varsity soccer teams.

    Also earlier this month, the school board passed what O'Toole called a clear process that "anybody would follow if they want to lodge a (Title IX) complaint. That was one of the complaints (from the soccer coaches), 'What is the process?' "

    The source familiar with the case said board members became "peeved at Becky."

    "The way the school board was acting, (Pederson) was hesitant about pushing them any further," the source said. "She has concerns that they'll get rid of the boys soccer program to be in compliance with Title IX."

    "In general," Pederson said, "we were asking questions about, 'What are your procedures• What are your plans to come into compliance• What are your goals• How is Title IX working in your long-range plans?' "

    'They are responsible to comply with the law'

    Deborah Brake, an associate law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has won numerous Title IX cases nationwide while at the National Women's Law Center, said Title IX carries an anti-retaliation provision.

    "(A coach) doesn't have a legal right to the job," Brake said. "The legal right is not to be treated worse just because she raised Title IX concerns.

    "It all comes down to, 'what was the real reason?' That can be very factually tricky to get at. The tough part of retaliation cases is proving that's the reason the bad action happened."

    Even if Pederson and Neubert cannot prove their raising Title IX concerns was the reason the school board decided to advertise the positions, they said the district's handling of the situation still is reason for concern.

    "Our biggest thing is, we would like to change their minds -- get someone to understand this is a law," Neubert said. "They are responsible to comply with the law.

    "After 30 years, they really should understand that is part of their job."

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