Published in the July 16, 2015 edition


WAKEFIELD — Earlier this year, school board members set a goal to have a new boosters organization policy in place for the 2015-2016 academic year. The issue of improving partner relations with the schools’ many parent booster organizations was first raised in earnest in 2013 when member Thomas Markham III was board chairman and Dr. Garry Murphy was superintendent.

Markham framed the need to begin such discussions with the booster clubs by saying, “The School Department and School Committee relies so heavily on the good and generous works of the hundreds of parents and alumni who form the several booster groups that we must now strengthen our partnership by designing guidelines to both meet the growing needs of the students while legally protecting the volunteer groups and School Department alike.”

Last fall, Chairman of the Policy Subcommittee Gregory Liakos chaired a meeting with representatives from all the boosters organizations. The meeting began with Town Counsel Tom Mullen explaining the critical legal issues that must be addressed in booster guidelines in order to protect both the school district and, as importantly, the volunteers of the booster groups. The meeting was initially contentious as some booster parents felt like they were being “taken over” by the school board or the town and that their work was not fully appreciated. Liakos then explained that this was not the case as the board does appreciate the endless hours parents put in to support sports teams and clubs. Legal guidelines and standards, however, were needed to ensure the good work would continue with certain protections in place.

Though not listed on the July 14 agenda, Policy Subcommittee Chairman Gregory Liakos was asked for an update on the boosters policy, which underwent a rewrite since January of this year. The policy was penned by then Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen K. Zrike with input from now retired Director of Health, Wellness and Athletics Michael Boyages; Director of Visual and Performing Arts Thomas Bankert; high school Principal Richard Metropolis; Business Administrator Michael Pfifferling and Mullen. When the rewritten policy was presented to school board members, some were uneasy with the new guidelines and the vote was tabled.

Now, at their next meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 11, members will discuss the policy as rewritten and possibly vote whether to accept or deny it. Mullen will attend to answer any remaining questions concerning the new guidelines.

“We have landed in a couple of good places,” said Liakos.

At Tuesday’s meeting three remaining concerns were highlighted:

• Fundraising — Language is needed that ensures that fundraising efforts by boosters organizations are in synchronicity with program needs and efforts as guided by principals of the schools and team coaches or club advisors.

• Independence of organizations — Some organizations have independently sought non-profit status and the school board supported this. According to Markham, members encouraged boosters clubs to seek non-profit status.

“This separates boosters clubs from the School Department in an appropriately legal way that clearly explains the purpose of the booster organization and grants independent tax-exempt status and delineates the line of authority and responsibility over funds raised. We wanted to do this for legal purposes. We should establish a stronger collaborative and complementary, yet arms-length relationship in order to best guide decision-making and lines of responsibility between the School Department and each booster group.”

Markham continued: “Thank God nothing has ever happened in Wakefield.” He was quick to point out that there was never an allegation of misconduct of any kind and that is not why the board is committed to setting guidelines. “Trust is at the foundation of why we want to strengthen and protect our volunteer relationships, not control them,” he commented.

“Because we live in such a litigious world, we need to imagine the worst case scenario because of the legal linkage. The fallout would be along the lines of ‘the School Department should have been watching it,’” he said.

“All of a sudden our business administrator or school principal would be at question and perhaps faulted.  With the new policy, the School Department is getting a set of honorable rules in place that continue to allow good people to do good works.”

• School employees and their relationship with boosters clubs — How assistant coaches or club advisors are paid is an issue that needs resolution because they are employed by the School Department.

“This becomes a problem because coaches and advisors would be paid by a third party while they are employed by the School Department,” explained Markham.

In his remarks on the topic in January, Mullen commented heavily on the “serious risk of liability when booster organizations purport to retain coaches as independent contractors.”

Mullen referred to Massachusetts General Law c. 149, s. 148B, which was substantially rewritten by the Legislature 10 years ago.

Under the law, it states that if a worker, such as a coach, were to contend that he had been misclassified as an independent contractor when he should properly have been classified as an employee, the burden would be on the employer to prove that all of the three prongs of the statute support independent contractor status.

Even if a booster organization steered clear of controlling or directing coaches in their work, there would still be substantial risk, said Mullen.

He cited the following example: “One court found that paperboys could not be characterized as independent contractors of a newspaper because the delivery of the papers was part and parcel of the newspaper business,” commented Mullen.

“I would worry that the provision of coaching services is equally integral to a booster organization that exists chiefly to ensure that a team has coaches,” he continued. “Unless the coach offered his services on a freelance basis to multiple teams, I believe there also would be vulnerability on the third prong as well. If a court were to find the booster organization an ‘employer,’ then the organization would be liable for payments into the unemployment and workers’ compensation systems and any dispute about payment would be decided under the Wage Act, General Laws c. 194, ss. 148 and 150, which calls for triple damages and attorneys’ fees for successful employee claims and which makes the president and treasurer of the employer organizations personally liable.”

Mullen also stated at the time that if booster organizations were deemed an employer, it might be vicariously liable for the torts of the coach, meaning that if a child were hurt on the field and the parents claimed it was the coach’s responsibility, the resulting lawsuit would be against both the coach and the organization. Boosters can avoid all this potential liability by simply donating the money they raise to the School Department and letting the department employ the coaches.

Mullen said that this also would be better for the coaches.

“As employees of the School Department, they would be entitled to workers’ compensation through the town, if injured, and would be protected against claims of negligence under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, General Laws c. 258,” said Mullen.