MANCHESTER — Mayor Ted Gatsas and members of the school board are pushing back against the district’s recent decision to let two boys’ basketball teams play Pembroke Academy next season.
District administrators decided to schedule Central and Memorial high school basketball games against Pembroke, despite an agreement last month among the state’s Division I athletics directors and principals to boycott the Spartans over charges the team violated player-eligibility rules.
The administrators’ decision effectively overruled the head coaches at the two Manchester schools, who supported the Pembroke boycott.
Assistant Superintendent David Ryan on Tuesday was compelled to defend the decision to play Pembroke to the school board and the mayor, who was upset that neither he nor members of the board’s Athletics and Extra Curricular Committee knew about the decision.
“When I get calls from reporters, and I have no clue what they’re talking about, I think that’s unfortunate,” Mayor Ted Gatsas said. “I think from now on someone needs to be held accountable when something appears in the newspaper before anyone has heard about it.”
The board voted to have the athletics committee and the full board vote on the basketball schedules for next season, after District Athletics Director Chris Donovan said that two sets had been drawn up: one that includes Pembroke and one that does not.
Ryan told the board that he didn’t believe that the district, under the rules of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA), had the right to sanction Pembroke by refusing its invitation to compete.
“We see clearly in the NHIAA by-laws that we don’t have the authority to discipline fellow schools,” Ryan said. “In fact, we violate the letter and spirit of the NHIAA by not affording (Pembroke) the same rights under the (NHIAA) constitution.”
The issue sparked a wider critique of the school administration.
Ward 10 board member John Avard said that a pattern had emerged of administrators not apprising the board of important developments and decisions.
“We are being left out of the loop. We have a committee that handles athletic issues. They may have wanted to have a meeting,” Avard said. “There have been several things lately that bother me, that I don’t see the involvement of the board with, that don’t come back to this board for information and action.”
All three administrators involved in the Pembroke decision — Ryan, Donovan and Superintendent Debra Livingston — are in their first years in their jobs.
Donovan was criticized last November for not putting an athletics equipment contract out to bid, a move that angered a local vendor. He agreed it was a mistake and reopened the contract.
The uproar over the Pembroke basketball program began last December, when the NHIAA ruled that two transfer students were ineligible to play basketball for the Spartans. The Spartans captured the Division II title last March, but later that month the New Hampshire Basketball Coaches Organization stripped a Pembroke senior of his Player of the Year award after the player posted an obscenity on Twitter.
Recently, another Pembroke player was ruled ineligible to play next season by the NHIAA. The player’s parents have threatened a lawsuit against the NHIAA.
Last month, after Pembroke successfully petitioned to move up from Division II to Division I in boys’ basketball, the Division I school athletics directors and principals — including the directors representing Manchester’s individual schools — voted not to play the Spartans in the sport next season. Donovan was not present at the meeting.
Like Ryan and Donovan, the chairman of Manchester’s athletics committee, Ward 1 board member Sarah Ambrogi, is relatively new to the post; she was appointed in January.
She agreed that there were issues around the Pembroke decision that needed to be clarified in committee.
“Some of us on the committee are not entirely clear. This has been reported that this decision was an official act of the NHIAA, and that’s not the case, from what you’re telling us,” she said, referring to Ryan.
Ryan did not return messages left on Thursday, but Donovan said the fact that the boycott was not an act of the NHIAA was the main reason he and Ryan decided to schedule Pembroke.
“Dave Ryan and I came up with this position, largely based on the question: Will the actions of the Division I schools stand up in a court of law?,” Donovan said. “The NHIAA by-laws allow schools to make their own schedules, but do the by-laws allow for collusion? If Pembroke holds the line and takes this to court, this could turn into a high-stakes game with some potentially very expensive consequences for individual school districts.
“The NHIAA has the power to take sanctions in this matter, but the division does not, in our interpretation of the by-laws. Inevitably, schools are going to have conflicts that need to be resolved, and that’s why you have a state association.”
Donovan said he believes sanctions against Pembroke are in order.
“We’re not taking Pembroke off the hook by any means,” he said “In fact, we’re saying to Pembroke, ‘You need to come clean regarding your actions.’”
Donovan acknowledged that he and Ryan might have avoided controversy by delaying action until after July, by which time the NHIAA will have a new executive director and Pembroke will have a new headmaster.
“Ideally,” he said, “Pembroke’s new headmaster fires the head coach and self-imposes its own sanctions, and this gets resolved.”