TRENTON — Citing pressures from parents that get fanned by social media, lawmakers are thinking about requiring high school sports coaches to receive multi-year contracts and a specific set of steps that would have to be followed to discipline or fire them.

High school coaches say they’re being targeted by bullying accusations, under a state law primarily intended to cut down on student-on-student incidents, in disputes that are really about athletes’ playing time and parents’ contention that decisions are costing a chance at college scholarships.

“You are really hanging by a thread. You’re vulnerable to the whim of anybody – a board member, a principal, a superintendent, a parent,” said former Cedar Grove football coach Ed Sadloch, who is among those asking the Legislature for more due process protections.

“Coaches get dismissed and fired all the time, and we understand that,” said former coach Greg Arakelian. “We’ve been in this for a long time. We understand it. But there needs to be just cause.”

Arakelian lost a job at Somerville High School after bullying accusations that were dismissed by a Superior Court judge. He says it was really about his unwillingness to recruit players from neighboring schools, which isn’t allowed.

Steve Farsiou is a coach at North Hunterdon High School – and an attorney in Flemington who has represented 15 coaches fighting to save their jobs after complaints. He said use of the anti-bullying law by parents and administrators “as a sword” against coaches is “becoming an epidemic.”

“The state of New Jersey, which manufactures great athletes and great coaches, is on the verge of losing high school sports because these coaches are not going to – you’re going to lose coaches. These sports are in trouble,” Farsiou said.

The legislation, A5007, would provide that a head coach at a public high school would have to receive a three-year employment contract, even if they are an out-of-district employee without tenure, and an assistant coach would have to receive a two-year contract.

At the conclusion of the term of the contract, the coach will be deemed reappointed, unless the board notifies the coach in writing at least 90 days before it expires that he or she will not be reappointed at the end of the term.

Coaches couldn’t be fired or have their pay cut for reasons other than just cause. They would need to be given written notice within five days of the decision by a school district official, before the school board takes action; can request a hearing before the school board that would take place within 10 days; can appeal a school board’s dismissal or pay-cut decision to the state education commissioner; and can file a complaint with the state Division on Civil Rights based on membership in a protected group.

“With social media and parents that are a little overbearing sometimes, you run really good coaches out of these positions,” said bill sponsor Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, who is preparing for his 30th season as a high school football coach.

Debra Bradley, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said required three-year contracts and a year to improve after a poor evaluation aren’t given for other extracurricular activity leaders.

“High school principals were concerned that if an individual was not acting appropriately, they would be hemmed in for a three-year cycle,” Bradley said.

“If that’s something we need to extend more explicitly to coaches, we’re willing to consider that, but having a blanket, statewide remedy that gives every athletic high school coach an automatic three-year contract, every assistant coach an automatic two-year contract, really presents a sweeping change from the existing status quo, and we think it deserves a lot more scrutiny,” said Jonathan Pushman, a legislative advocate for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

But the education groups who testified acknowledged today’s unique pressures of coaching.

“The athletic scholarship arms race is a little bit horrifying and that affects coaches and everyone else,” said Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.

The bill was advanced by the Assembly Education Committee in a 10-0 vote, plus one vote to abstain. It is now in position to be posted for a full Assembly vote, though education groups hope to meet with Wimberly to push for changes to the bill. There isn’t yet a companion bill in the Senate.

“You know, I never thought this was going to become an issue for the Legislature, but I certainly think it’s very, very important,” said Assemblyman David Wolfe, R-Ocean.

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