Lawyer says booster clubs present risk for coaches

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comAugust 5, 2008 

The lack of oversight of booster clubs by the Fayette County School District leaves all coaches and band directors susceptible to situations such as the one that resulted in criminal charges against former Paul Laurence Dunbar baseball coach Mickey Marshall, Marshall's attorney, Jim Morris, said Monday.

Booster clubs, made up of parents and coaches, are private organizations that support sports, cheerleading and bands in Fayette County public schools by raising millions of dollars for equipment, travel and other expenses.

Fayette County does not provide those things to students involved in extracurricular activities.

”Any coach in Fayette County needs to be careful in taking any benefit from the booster clubs,“ Morris said.

He said that's because the district offers so few guidelines to the clubs, but that Fayette County School Superintendent Stu Silberman disputes that contention.

”Fayette County hands off control and responsibility solely to the booster clubs, and booster clubs are the direct results of Fayette County deciding not to fund extracurricular activities,“ Morris said.

”What we have is a train wreck where there is no oversight,“ he said. ”Athletics are becoming bigger than academics.“

Silberman said the district does provide oversight and mandatory annual training for coaches and at least one booster club officer.

”We have guidelines that we expect to be followed and, along with the guidelines, we have a code of ethics,“ said Silberman, who added that he could not speak on the Marshall case specifically.

”Anybody who follows those guidelines is not going to have a problem,“ he said.

Marshall, whose teams won state championships in 2003 and 2007, ”was never notified or asked to go to a training,“ Morris said.

Marshall — named the 2007 Coach of the Year by the Kentucky High School Baseball Coaches Association — has been charged with three felony counts of theft in connection with incidents that allegedly occurred during 2007.

The booster club and a donor wrote Marshall checks totaling $12,500, and booster club officials allege that the coach used the money for himself rather than for what they intended.

In an interview last week, Marshall said he did nothing wrong. The booster club board approved everything he did as club CEO last year, and he did not have authority to write checks, he said.

Lexington attorney Jim Lowry confirmed Monday that he is representing Marshall in the criminal case.

Morris is handling the civil legal matters involving Marshall's suspension from his job in May as a teacher at Dixie Elementary Magnet School.

Morris said Marshall's problems involving the booster club should not affect his job as a teacher.

Booster club ”payments to coaches go completely unchecked“ by the district, Morris said.

Other coaches in the district receive payments directly from parents or booster clubs, he said.

”When things are going good, there are no questions,“ Morris said, ”but when a group of parents has an issue with playing time or positions, parents can exhibit a tremendous amount of control.“

John Bobel, a director of the Tates Creek High School booster club for the swim and dive team, said the district does not spend enough on extracurricular activities, putting a strain on parents.

”The whole situation of how the school district funds extracurricular activities needs to be reviewed,“ Bobel said.

In a 2005 examination of the booster club system, the Herald-Leader found that Fayette County is the only system in the state in which parents and booster clubs pay for all extracurricular activity costs except the utilities, the head coaches' salaries and a specified number of assistants.

Parents and coaches say the county wouldn't have band programs or sports at all if not for booster clubs.

As a result of a task force the school system appointed to review extracurricular activities, several improvements were made, said spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall. They included having a district athletic director work with booster clubs, other school athletic directors and coaches to make sure guidelines are met.

There is a salary scale for staff members who take on extracurricular activities, and booster clubs cannot pay coaches more than the scale calls for, Silberman said.

District officials — including an athletic director hired to oversee booster clubs — also review the financial statements and a list of officers from each club, Silberman said.

Booster-club training offered by the school system covers financial guidelines issued by the state Department of Education, as well as athletic guidelines governing questions such as how many assistant coaches may be hired, Silberman said.

Bobel said his group at Tates Creek was already cautious before the district's training program, but members still found it helpful.

”The booster club parents are very careful that any request from a coach is bona fide,“ he said. ”We write checks to the vendors.“

Silberman said the guidelines ”are very clear on what can and can't be done.“

But Morris said the guidelines are not easy to find.

”If they are that clear cut,“ Morris asked, ”Where are they?“

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