Unit 5 chief: District working internally to address sports booster payments

 

Normal West football players
Normal West football players attended a Unit 5 school board meeting on Jan. 10 to support coach Darren Hess, who resigned last month. (Photo by Howard Packowitz/WJBC)

By Eric Stock

NORMAL – Some parents in a booster club at Normal West High School claim they are being tarnished by reports of improper payments made to football coaches, payments which they claim led to the football team’s veteran coach to resign.

Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said last week the district reached out to the Illinois High School Association to see if it’s acceptable for the district to pay coaches with funds from the Normal West Gridiron Club, something that emails have shown was in the works at Unit 5 as early as 2015.

Daniel stressed the Gridiron Club did nothing wrong and that any oversights on the district’s part were not intentional.

PODCAST: Listen to WJBC’s interview with Unit 5 Superintendent Daniel. 

“No one did anything on purpose. It wasn’t in any way, ‘OK let’s try to figure out how to get around the system,” Daniel said. “I think it was ‘We are trying to do what’s best for our programs and do what’s best for the kids.’ ”

Daniel said the district will be working with the school board to develop a more detailed structure for how coaches can be paid.

The Gridiron Club is a separate organization from the Normal West Booster Club. That booster club runs concessions at sporting events and funds equipment for the school and athletic department.

Boosters can pay for coaches and other expenses as long as the school board approves it. The Unit 5 Board of Education didn’t in this case.

Daniel would not say whether anyone would be disciplined, citing that as a personnel matter.

IHSA Director Craig Anderson said he believes the district will take the proper steps to prevent any potential improprieties.

PODCAST: Listen to WJBC’s interview with the IHSA’s Craig Anderson.

“I don’t see a reason to hold this over coach Hess if he would want to coach again somewhere else, nor would I hold it against Unit 5 schools,” Anderson said.

Anderson added that the association isn’t assigning blame and has no plans to pursue the matter further.

“We let the school kind of investigate if they are going to take some action or they are going to try to resolve the issues, we typically allow them to do that and then they report back to us their findings,” Anderson said.

The Gridiron Club’s treasurer ,Jeff Lord, said public perception that the club was behind improper payments was causing a backlash, including the potential loss of sponsors and the resignation of two club board members.

The emails secured by conservative blogger Diane Benjamin through a Freedom of Information Act request have reportedly been distributed to members of the Gridiron Club and were obtained by WJBC. Many of the groups’ members attended a recent school board meeting to demand the district explain why Hess resigned last month.

Hess has said previously he was stepping down after 15 seasons for personal reasons.

Anderson said the association responded to the district’s request for clarification of the association’s bylaws regarding payments made by the booster club to football and other extra-curricular programs at Normal West.

“I indicated to them I believe that the bylaw says that payments, remuneration to coaches is to be done by the Board of Education and as a result there likely was – at some level – some bylaw violation,” Anderson said.

The emails seem to indicate that Unit 5 administrators, including the district’s attorney Curt Richardson, was aware the Normal Community and Normal West athletic departments were interested in pursuing booster club funds to pay for coaches and other expenses.

“Curt… Can we use boosters to pay coaches?,” then-NCHS athletic director Andy Turner asked in an April 2015 email. “Assuming that they donate funds to the school football activity account.”

The emails do not indicate whether Richardson responded. Turner is now the AD at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Hess responded later in the thread indicating the district was trying to cut one coaching job on the West football staff.

“Just wanted to give you the heads up that due to budget cuts we are going to have to cut one paid position. I am not sure what the next step is going to be,” Hess wrote. “When talking to (Normal West athletic director) Stan (Lewis) – he and Andy Turner need some clarification from Curt Richardson.”

“If they are going to cut a coach then they need to allow us to utilize our Gridiron club (to) help supplement the cost.”

The IHSA’s Anderson specified Unit 5 only inquired about booster club spending in regards to Normal West, not Normal Community. NCHS football coach Wes Temples resigned in December, less than a week before Hess’ departure. He said at the time he wanted to pursue a master’s degree in administration, potentially to become an athletic director.

Eric Stock can be reached at eric.stock@cumulus.com.

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