Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 21, 2010

Who oversees high school athletic programs?

Athletic directors have big jobs managing large athletic programs and coaches, with little time and no extra pay

by Terri Lobdell

Athletic directors at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools are in charge of coaches and running the athletic programs at their schools and they have their hands full.

Earl Hansen, Paly's athletic director since 1993, manages 45 teams and approximately 72 coaches.

Chris Horpel, in his third year as Gunn's athletic director, supervises 50 teams and approximately 85 coaches.

Hansen and Horpel (both P.E. teachers) receive two additional prep periods per day and no additional pay as compensation for their athletic-director duties. Hansen also coaches Paly football; Horpel heads up wrestling. They receive standard seasonal stipends for coaching their teams: Hansen $4,372; Horpel $3,407.

By contrast, most private high schools with comparable sports programs employ full-time athletic directors, often with assistants, according to Nancy Lazenby Blaser, Central Coast Section commissioner for the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high-school sports in the state.

"Public-school athletic directors can't possibly do all they're required to do in the time they are given. ... I don't know how they keep their heads above water," she said.

According to Hansen, the athletic-director job is "more challenging every day" due to the increases in the number of sports teams and athletes, budget challenges, the numbers of coaches who don't also teach at the school (known as "walk ons") and parent complaints.

Paly and Gunn have taken different approaches to organizing and administering athletic activities. At Gunn, Horpel is a member of the "Admin Team" and meets weekly with the principal and assistant principals, including Tom Jacoubowsky, who oversees athletics and is a former athletic director there.

At Paly, Hansen meets weekly with the assistant principal in charge of athletics, Todd Feinberg (new to the duty this year and a former student of Hansen's, although he recently resigned effective in June).

In the prior two years, Paly Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson was in charge of athletics and did not meet regularly with Hansen. Berkson said he and Hansen met "when needed." Hansen also meets with Principal Jacqueline McEvoy as needed. There are other differences between the schools such as how they gather student feedback on coaches.

"We should be systematically getting feedback from our student athletes on coaches. ... We should certainly ensure that the evaluations are anonymous and administered in a way that feels safe," said Scott Bowers, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources.

Gunn currently e-mails feedback forms to all student athletes and their parents at the end of a sports season, according to Horpel. Forms can be e-mailed back or printed out and handed in to Horpel anonymously.

"I don't want coaches doing this," Horpel said. "They could just toss out the worst forms."

At Paly, there is also a school feedback form but no standard system for administering it.

"It's varied, and that's probably something we should look at," Hansen said.

School feedback forms are only occasionally administered, according to Paly parents, players and coaches. Many athletes do not ever see the form during their four years at Paly, players and parents report.

Hansen said he allows some coaches to manage their own feedback process, using their own forms, which Hansen may or may not ask to see.

Hansen said he sometimes personally administers feedback forms by calling team meetings. In this event, he collates the forms before discussing them with a coach to maintain anonymity.

"Our responsibility or expectation is that kids and their families have a chance to provide the athletic director input. How (the schools) do it is really up to them," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.

School district involvement in high school athletics has varied. Historically there has been an Athletic Committee comprised of a district-level supervisor and the two school principals, assistant principals and athletic directors meeting bi-monthly to review and coordinate athletic policies and programs.

Sandra Pearson, retired Paly principal, recalled these meetings as an "important vehicle for making sure we were in step."

Yet in recent years meetings have been canceled routinely. Burton Cohen, district supervisor in charge of coordinating the Athletic Committee until January 2010, said the scheduled meeting dates have been "placeholders" only. If the schools did not generate agenda items he canceled the meetings.

Last November, Horpel in his third year as athletic director at Gunn said he had yet to attend a district meeting due to these routine cancellations.

Since the Weekly began asking questions about this committee last fall, however, the Athletic Committee has been rejuvenated, with Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Linda Common now in charge. Common, who had athletic-oversight experience as Woodside High School principal for 12 years, said the committee has been meeting monthly since January and will continue meeting after her upcoming retirement July 1.

"This is definitely needed," she said.

Skelly agrees: "It's a forum for us ... to make sure everyone's on the same page in terms of expectations."

Common described the committee's agenda as including review of all coach hiring and firing procedures, coach employment agreements, complaint and complaint investigation procedures, coach training needs, and systems for coach evaluations. Common said clarity and "transparency" in policies and procedures is very important, as well as good communication.

"If the rules are clear, the process is right and the resources made available," the system should work well, she said.

Like many school officials, Common expressed a strong preference for hiring teacher-coaches whenever possible. They get the "big picture" and "save so many problems," she said. She also believes the district needs to address the training of coaches, especially walk-ons. During her tenure as Woodside principal, all coaches were required to take Positive Coaching Alliance workshops, which she believes would be helpful in Palo Alto.

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