WINFIELD — Graduation for Winfield High School was more than a week ago, but the controversy surrounding the exclusion of a popular coach from the ceremony came before the Putnam County Board of Education again Monday night.
Resident Joe Haught described Coach Leon McCoy as having been “suppressed” by the board of education and described a recent Supreme Court ruling dealing with prayer at public meetings, specifically a town government meeting in Greece, New York.
“If you invited someone to speak, just like I’m speaking right now, you can talk about anything you want, “Haught said. “You’re free to speak about God, Jesus, whomever.”
He asked the board to take that case into consideration and to “reverse this decision on Coach McCoy.”
Superintendent Chuck Hatfield responded by reading a prepared statement.
Hatfield cited a 2000 Supreme Court case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, that stipulates school administrators cannot knowingly allow a speaker to give a religious speech at a school-sponsored event, specifically like a graduation.
“The sticking point here is that if the school has a reasonable expectation that the speaker will pray, the school is liable for breaking the law,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield went on to say that neither he nor any members of the board were directly involved in making the decision to exclude Coach McCoy, although he said Principal Bruce McGrew acted exactly as he would expect.
“As all principals do when given a complaint lodged with my office, he acted on the complaint,” Hatfield said. “He was expected to do so, and he did, because the school was clearly in violation of the law.”
Hatfield said he forwarded complaints to McGrew after last year’s graduation and assumed the situation was taken care of. He didn’t know anything about the particulars of the decision until the controversy erupted on social media in the weeks leading up the graduation.
“As individuals we believe in the words Coach McCoy speaks. As leaders of the school system, we must uphold the law.”
Hatfield said the option to hold a baccalaureate service outside the school where Coach McCoy would be allowed to speak about religious topics and offer prayer was available, but the school opted not to have one.
In other news, Hatfield’s annual performance review was on the agenda Monday night.
The board met in a brief closed-door executive session to pool their notes after which they emerged to give Hatfield high praise.
“We classify him as ‘exceeding standards’ on every item on this list,” President Butch Legg said, referring to a state-issued review form.
Also on the agenda was the creation of four new positions, including a dedicated communications and event planning position at the central office. Those duties are currently undertaken by the elementary school coordinator, Karen Nowviskie.
The county has also shuffled some responsibilities at the central office to put one coordinator in charge of both middle and high schools and shift county-level oversight for Putnam Career and Technical Center to a combined principal-director position.
The position will be posted for any interested applicants, but Hatfield anticipated current PCTC Mike Erwin would get the job along with a pay bump since it requires special certification and he has seniority in the county.
The county will also hire an information systems engineer as it brings technology oversight back in house after a contract to outsource the system to DataCom expires at the end of the fiscal year.
Finally, the board approved a contract for $244,000 with Harris Brothers to put a new roof on George Washington Elementary school in Eleanor.
The Putnam County Board of Education meets at 7 p.m. the first and third Tuesday of each month at the central office in Winfield. All meetings are open to the public. The next meeting will be July 7.