Did the Malverne school district violate New York State Education law by allowing a South Carolina-based corporation to use its fields last weekend?
School officials say "No."
Although he could not comment specifically on Section 414 of the state law, which states:
"For meetings, entertainments and occasions where admission fees are charged, when the proceeds thereof are to be expended for an educational or charitable purpose;"
Spiro Colaitis, assistant superintendent for Malverne's District Operations, said the district's legal counsel vetted the request for Offense Defense, a for-profit football corporation from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to host a Combine at the high school fields on May 5 and May 6.
"The lawyer said we are in compliance," he said.
Referring to the district's own policy, which was adopted in 2007, Colaitis said Michael Taylor, president of the non-profit Malverne Wildcats youth football program, followed protocols when he requested use of the turf field for Offense Defense to bring its Combine program to his young players and Malverne High School athletes.
Taylor included the request in an application he filed with the district on Feb 6 to get perrmission to use the fields at Malverne High School and Howard T. Herber Middle School for his teams throughout 2012. (Originally, it appears Taylor had intended to hold the Combine at Herber but the application shows he crossed this location off to request the new turf field at the high school instead.) Offense Defense filed its liability insurance with the district in late 2011.
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The district's policy, which is posted on its Web site, states:
"Groups wishing to use the school facilities must secure written permission from the Superintendent."
It says the superintendent may consult with the Board of Education, at his or her discretion, but is not required to. But in the "Facility Use Requirements" form that Colaitis provided Patch, it states:
"The use of all district facilities shall be subject to the approval and rules of the Board of Education administered by the Building Principal or other Board designee. Organizations wishing to use District facilities shall first apply to the Building Principal on the prescribed form. The Principal or his/her designee has final authority on approval."
The application that Taylor submitted, was signed off by Malverne High School Principal James Brown, Spiro Colaitis and Superintendent James Hunderfund, all on May 4. The only signature missing was Athletics Director Brenda White, which Colaitis explained was due to a death in her family.
The signatures were just a "formality," Colaitis said, explaining that Taylor received permission to use the fields on Feb. 14, at the annual planning meeting held in Central Office for all parties wishing to use district fields.*
But controversy erupted late last week when some parents of Malverne Mohawks lacrosse players learned their children could not use the fields this weekend because the combine was taking place. Others, citing the event's flier, took issue with the fact the corporation was not being charged to use taxpayer funded fields and yet was charging kids to participate in the program - $45 for youth players, $55 for high school athletes.
A firestorm of comments erupted inside the "I Love Malverne ... But Want More From Our Schools" Facebook group when resident Don Pupke, a parent of a Mohawks player, posted the event flier and stated, "Local residents are prohibited from using the field this weekend because a South Carolina company is using our new and expensive turf field to make a profit." Citing the NYSED Law, he added," If a fee is being charged for attending an event at a school facility, it's illegal, unless all proceeds are going to an educational or charitable cause."
Patch reached out to Offense Defense's president, Rick Whittier, who did confirm Tuesday his corporation did not pay to use the fields and did not donate the proceeds to any non-profit or educational cause. He was not aware of the NYSED law regarding facilities use.
"We've been around for 43 years and we've done many camps and combines," Whittier said, but added that most are hosted on college campuses or at professional football stadiums, which the company pays to use. "We don't run many on high school fields."
Whittier said Offense Defense does get requests though from high school football coaches asking them to bring its program to their players and in some cases, the company has agreed not to charge fees in exchange for using the schools' fields, free of charge.
However, that was not the case for Malverne this weekend. The fees charged to residents, he explained, paid for the coaches and other staff that worked the event, including two who came from the Carolinas, travel expenses and electronic equipment used to test the participants' speed and agility. (Whittier explained that parents often want this standardized data on their athletes to use when talking to college recruiters.)
In addition to the tests, Whittier said the players who participated in the combine received position-specific skills training from the organization's senior staff members, which have trained players who have since gone on to play in the NFL. Given the value of the program, Whittier said the fees that were charged were very reasonable.
"At the end of day, I can assure you with the number of kids that came and amount of time that went into it, it certainly wasn't a profit center," he added.
Rather, he says, the intent was to get the word out that Offense Defense will be hosting its camps in the area this summer, at Hofstra and St. John's, where players have opportunities to be selected to play in an All-American Pro Bowl at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in late December. (Some of Taylor's players did so in 2011.)
Taylor, who is running for school board, did not wish to rehash the issue, but did tell Patch, in an email, "Whatever issues someone might have, I followed proper procedure with my paper work and submitted the necessary documents ... I don't want to fuel anything that doesn't have anything to do with me. I have completed this event two years in a row and been approved for months."
He added, "Besides, the kids love it. I'm not sure why now it's an issue since I'm running for office, but I would like to stay clear of the confusion."
Admitting that its facilities use policy is lacking, Colaitis also said the district is updating it to make it more robust. A 5-page revised policy will be introduced at the May 8 school board meeting for its first reading.
*A previous version of this article stated that the annual meeting was for all parties using district facilities. According to Colaitis, it is only for groups wishing to use the fields.