Hollidaysburg heard concerns about swim coach during season

The successful Hollidaysburg Area High School swim team’s season concluded at the state championship last week.

That ended another season of coaching, his third with the program, for assistant coach Baron Leonard.

Long hours of coaching-related work since October earned him $2,530, but the 29-year-old has three more jobs, including bartending at a local strip club – which became a point of contention for some during the swim season.

Leonard spoke proudly of the five Hollidaysburg Area students who competed in the state swimming championships.

“I think it was wonderful just to have that many kids go,” he said Tuesday. “It was the first that’s happened since I’ve been coaching.”

He almost didn’t have that experience. His job was threatened at midseason by an anonymous letter sent to the school’s administration. It called for the school board to fire him because he bartends at Club Coconuts in Altoona.

“Enough people did come to my aid that I was able to keep coaching,” he said.

All coaches’ performance are evaluated at the end of the season. Their contracts are automatically renewed annually unless an issue arises from the performance report.

Superintendent Bob Gildea did not disclose whether he wanted Leonard back next season on whether the Leonard will be given an ultimatum to give up bartending at Coconuts or give up coaching.

“I can’t comment on that,” Gildea said Friday. “We haven’t reviewed it officially.”

The national leadership organization for high school sports, the National Federation of State High School Associations has a coaches code of ethics.

It states: “In all personal contact with students, officials, athletic directors, school administrators, the state high school athletic association, the media, and the public, the coach shall strive to set an example of the highest ethical and moral conduct.”

The PIAA adopts the NFSH ethics code along with the the NFSH rules book for play. However, it doesn’t apply beyond the sports arena. The coach’s life outside of the sport is more of a hiring issue up to each local school, PIAA Executive Director Bob Lombardi said Thursday.

School district hiring procedures are formed by federal and state laws and background checks. Schools are prohibited to discriminate based on sexual preference. Laws allow districts to discriminate based on a job candidate’s criminal history. No laws pertain to the hiring or firing of potential employees based on the side jobs they hold.

Leonard has been employed as an assistant swim coach for Hollidaysburg since 2011. Gildea said the district is not aware of how long Leonard has been working at the club and only was made aware of it through the letter this season.

Hollidaysburg Area administrators and board members offered little response this winter when parents of swim team members criticized them for allegedly considering firing Leonard for his side job as a bartender at Club Coconuts.

Parent Jane Grassadonia told the board she had collected signatures from all but one of 39 parents of current team members. She said the anonymous letter sent to the district did not reflect the attitude of the vast majority of the team’s parents.

“The school district overstepped their bounds by intruding into this man’s life,” Grassadonia said at the winter meeting. “Most of the parents didn’t even know he worked at this establishment. So, he’s clearly exercised discretion.”

Following the meeting at which the swim parents urged the district to retain Leonard, the district confirmed Leonard’s job at Club Coconuts but said nothing of his employment status with the district.

On whether the district had a moral obligation to re-evaluate Leonard’s employment, Gildea said this after the parents’ hearing: “In society, there are moral standards. I don’t know how you can avoid it.”

But since that meeting, no administrative recommendation to fire Leonard has been made, nor has there been a motion from the board.

Leonard said he did not know how his side job became known, but he had not tried to hide it.

“No, I can’t say that I made a conscious effort not to bring it up,” he said. “I didn’t talk about it because it wasn’t applicable to what we were doing.”

He said he doesn’t believe his side job would influence students negatively.

“I’m not a stripper, and I don’t necessarily condone stripping,” he said. “I work there because I like my employers, and the customers are friendly and polite. I have more issues with rowdy customers at restaurants.”

Leonard holds four jobs, including bartending at a restaurant and bartending at Coconuts.

Although the board had not taken any action, earlier this winter Tom Grassadonia told the board: “The district is now going to make moral decisions?”

District Solicitor David Andrews could not share how he advised the board regarding Leonard’s employment.

“All I can say for the record is the coach is still an employee of the district,” Andrews said. “Other than that, it is a personnel matter.”

The Pennsylvania School Code states “immorality” is one of the “only valid causes for termination of a contract … entered into with a professional employee.”

The code states “Immorality is conduct which offends the morals of the Commonwealth and is a bad example to the youth whose ideals a professional educator or charter school staff member has a duty to foster and elevate.”

The state’s code of conduct for educators also states educators have moral obligations.

Neither of those codes apply to coaches, board member Troy Keefer said.

“We are not in the business of telling people where they can work,” Keefer said. “He’s a bartender.”

Leonard said he does not feel that his job is in conflict with the section of school code involving immorality.

“Not at all,” he said. “I’m very selective of places where I work. Working at Coconuts, they are extremely concerned with doing things properly, fairly, legally and safely for people to have a good time who chose to. And it works out financially for me.”

Tom Grassadonia said Leonard is a “phenomenal, character-building and dedicated coach.”

Parents who were concerned of the coach’s termination at midseason had urged the board to at least wait until the end of the season.

Leonard said he is passionate about coaching, but he is considering whether he wants to continue.

“Coaching is time consuming, and I have other responsibilities,” he said. “Swim season is a long season.”

He declined to comment on whether he believes his coaching job is in jeopardy.

“At this point, I need to find a way to manage my life in general,” he said. “Four jobs is a lot.”