Published in the August 20, 2015 edition
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — A meeting last night of the School Committee’s Policy Subcommittee and representatives of the various school sports booster organizations may have finally resulted in the solution to a thorny problem that has eluded resolution for more than a year.
After listening to the concerns of frustrated Booster Club leaders and other parents for more than an hour, School Superintendent Dr. Kim Smith proposed a solution that caused an eruption of spontaneous applause among those in attendance.
The long standing prospect of a set of School Department-established guidelines for booster organizations has caused some uneasiness among those organizations. A central issue has been a longstanding practice whereby booster organizations have rewarded volunteer coaches and instructors for their efforts with a gift or stipend at the end of the season. The size of the stipend would vary depending on the success of that year’s fundraising efforts.
As representatives of those organizations stressed last night, such gifts or stipends are only paid with monies left after all other expenses have been paid. Booster organizations typically raise funds to pay for necessary goods and services that the School Department budget cannot afford. The organizations pay for banquets, awards, equipment (such as musical instruments and sports equipment) and other expenses.
They have also funded stipends for positions (like assistant coaches) not funded by the School Department budget but which have been identified by head coaches as needed to provide quality instruction and a safe environment for student athletes.
Town Counsel Thomas Mullen has advised the School Committee that when volunteer coaches are paid – even by a third party like a booster club – it could expose both the school department and the paying organization to liability issues.
Policy Subcommittee member Thomas Markham said last night that the source and amount of the funds paid were irrelevant.
“What’s relevant is that they are performing a function on School Department property with the knowledge of the School Department.”
A question was raised as to why a voluntary gift from a booster organization would place a liability burden on the School Department, since the assistant coaches are hired as volunteers.
Tiro said that any kind of compensation makes the person receiving it an employee. “A volunteer does not get compensation,” he said.
Tiro said that the issue of liability would be vacated if the donations came through the School Department and were paid to the coaches by the School Department. He noted that since funds are raised during the season, it would be impossible to commit to an exact dollar amount so the possibility of doing it as a “range” was under consideration.
Wakefield Warrior Club president Paul Buckley referred to a position paper that was put together by members of various sports booster clubs and published as a letter in last Thursday’s Item Forum.
The letter proposed a “pay it forward” approach starting after the upcoming school year whereby every year the booster clubs would raise money in the current year to pay in advance for next year’s salaries.
“You need to tell us what’s wrong with that position,” Buckley told the Policy Subcommittee last night.
Markham said that he was hearing some of the same concerns that he heard at a meeting last fall. He said that the School Department’s need to establish guidelines for how stipends were paid to coaches was not about trust or any desire to control the booster clubs. It was simply about how people get paid and the town’s obligations under the IRS rules, he said.
Buckley said that a proposal was shot down whereby the School Department would pay for all coaches and the booster organizations would pick up costs like uniforms. He and others in attendance wanted the schools to tell them how user fees are being spent.
Charles Jordan of the Wakefield Track Boosters wanted to know if the booster clubs would be paying both salaries and benefits if they funneled the money through the School Department.
Smith said that the coaching assistants do not meet the threshold for benefits in terms of hours worked in contact with students.
Smith proposed a solution that she said would preserve the flexibility of the booster clubs while following the law.
She said that the School Department would CORI volunteer coaches who must agree to abide by the school policies. A hiring letter from the School Department would go to the volunteer coach stating the number of hours to be worked and compensation range “pending booster fundraising efforts and ability to gift.”
The coach would be an employee of the School Department. The booster club would provide a monetary gift to the School Department which would be processed and approved by the School Committee for the intended purpose. The coach would then be paid by the School Department.
“That solves the problem,” said one of the boosters in attendance.
“We’re done,” said another.
Tiro noted that the Smith’s idea would have to be run by Town Counsel and the formal wording voted by the Policy Committee and the full School Committee.
After the meeting, Buckley said that he was satisfied with the result.
“Kim Smith has brought clarity to a situation once again,” Buckley said. “We’re very pleased with her common sense, fact-based approach. I think all the booster clubs will be fully supportive and we’re hopeful that the School Committee will be as well.”