An opinion column
ASHTABULA_With the decision to not renew the contract of Lakeside athletic director Greg Zannelli, the Ashtabula Area City Schools Board of Education touched off a firestorm.
On the surface, it was a simple personnel move. It’s anything but.
If it were simple, the citizens of the school district would not be banding together in support of Zannelli. They would not be speaking out at subsequent meetings or writing letters to the editor. The public would not be trying to find ways to remove members of the board from their seats. Members of the school board and the superintendent would not have answered questions on the move through the district’s attorneys. Requests for the files used to make the decision would have been fulfilled within a day.
The man at the center of all the discord would much rather have remained in the background. Instead, he has become the face for a movement.
Zannelli is a good man who is respected and loved by the coaches, athletic staff, teachers, students, athletes and parents in the district, as well as the athletic directors and coaches from around the area and beyond. He’s an Ashtabula boy born and bred who works tireless hours to help make the district that raised him great. He’s a family man who has to use school events to spend time with his wife and two young sons.
To get to the center of the issue, you have to figure out the motive of the four board members – board president Kim George, board vice president Julius Petro, Steve Candela Sr. and Maureen Vaught – who voted against renewing Zannelli’s contract.
That would be easy had they spoke up. All they have offered to this point is they were moving in a new direction. Nothing more. The question as to what the plan might be has been met with silence.
Vague references have been made as to Zannelli’s job performance. It has been stated there were a number of complaints filed against Zannelli.
James Hudson, the one member of the board who will speak and who not only voted in favor of retaining Zannelli, but moved to rescind the vote against the non-renewal of the contract, has gone on the record stating that he’s never seen these complaints and can’t verify they exist.
No one who has made a complaint or who agrees with the board’s decision has come forward to speak.
Requests for the job evaluations and complaints were made under the Freedom of Information Act. That request was stonewalled by treasurer Jackie Miranda and turned over to the same attorneys the board used to answer questions, though it’s not clear who issued the gag order.
At publication, the board still had not spoken and the requests were unfulfilled.
I’ve always been told that when I make a decision, I should be prepared to defend that decision. I’ve also been told to be transparent so as not to provide people the opportunity to question my ethics or motives.
Where is the transparency in regard to Zannelli? Where is the reasoning?
We, as the community, are left to figure this out for ourselves. There’s been talk of personal agendas from at least three of the four people who voted against Zannelli. It’s been said the board wants a bunch of “yes” men below them so they can do whatever it is they want. The board claims it has good reason to have made this decision.
What’s the truth? Only four people can answer that question. And they aren’t talking.
Members of school boards are elected by the community with the understanding they have the community’s interests at heart. The decisions that are made are to be made with the idea of improving the welfare of the students and educators in the school district. The citizens of the AACS want men and women like Zannelli, Lakeside principal Don Rapose and assistant superintendent Lori Riley to spearhead their children’s educations.
Rapose grew emotional when he talked about how much he loved the city schools. Zannelli’s voice cracked on several occasions when discussing his now-uncertain future. Riley’s own husband has questioned her on why she is so loyal to the district.
Their hearts and their words can inspire hundreds of students to follow in their footsteps.
“That’s the thing with being a product of parochial schools,” Riley, a product of catholic schools, said. “This was all new to me. In the beginning, it was just a job. My heart and soul is with the district now because whether we’re talking about public or catholic schools, I have ties back to the people I went to kindergarten with. I can’t describe it. My husband has asked for years what is keeping me here. It’s the people. Being in special education, it’s the relationships I’ve built with those families. I’ve had opportunities to walk away from here, but these people have become family.”
“This is my 29th year in the district,” Rapose said. “I’ve had opportunities over those 29 years to go other places and I’ve turned them down because my heart and soul is in this community. I’m a graduate of Harbor High School (1983). We had a wonderful crosstown rivalry with Ashtabula. Now, we’re one school. I tell people I used to bleed Purple and Gold, but I’ve had an infusion and now I bleed Green and Gold. I want the kids to have the same opportunities I had.
“After I took the position as principal, I wanted to help the district to improve for the kids, not that it was in a bad place when I took over. I just wanted to help make it better. I want the kids to have a great four years of high school. That’s the bottom line. In my 29 years, every decision I’ve made I’ve tried to make with the best interest of the students in mind. Sometimes, the decisions you have to make are very challenging. I love the kids. I love the building. They’re really awesome kids. The parents are very supportive. The school has had a bad rap for years and it’s unwarranted. We see great things from the kids with what they have going on. We want to see them go on and do great things. When they go to college or go to other places, I always remind them to remember where home is and to come back and make this community great. Make the community successful. One of the proudest days of my life was when Mr. (Joe) Donatone (the former superintendent) called and said I got the job.”
Zannelli, himself, has expressed that very love for the district.
“If given the opportunity, I want to stay,” Zannelli said. “I think I owe that to my supporters and the student-athletes. They’re family. This is what I do. The coaches I’ve care so much about over the past three years… The personal friends I had, I’ve lost contact with because I’ve been so engrossed in the coaching staff and the athletes. They’ve become family members. I don’t want to lose that. Going to another district would be difficult. I’m a local guy. I grew up in the district. I know the people. This is what I love.
“I want to say thank you to all of them because serving, the coaches and the student athletes has been a great time. People say teaching and coaching are unselfish, but it’s one of the most selfish things I can do. I love to see them graduate and achieve great things. All I can say is thank you for the three years being the athletic director – not THE athletic, but THEIR athletic director. I am there for them. I just want to say thank you for everything. I want what’s best for the student-athletes, for the whole community. If the board feels I can’t provide that, so be it.
“It’s great. But they have just as much of an impact on me. Again, I get so much pleasure seeing them grow up and evolve and become upstanding young men and young women.”
Those are the words of people who care, who have the best interests of our children at heart. Why is it one them is being relieved of his duties?
A better question might be if people like this are being removed from the district, what does it say for the people removing them?
I’ve heard time and again when a coach or athletic director is let go from the district that we need good, local people who are strong role models to lead our kids. Yet time and again, I’ve seen men like Zannelli or former boys basketball coach Rob Pisano, pushed out of their jobs.
I’ve covered a lot of Lakeside sports over the last 13 years. I’ve seen athletes and parents. I’ve seen athletic staff and coaches. I’ve seen the families and friends of athletes. I’ve seen school administrators and students. I’ve even seen the superintendents. The one thing I’ve never seen is a school board member at an event who didn’t have a child involved in that event.
The public is well aware of the above fact. It has been stated several times that, no matter the time of day, Zannelli is at the school tending to his responsibilities. It has also been stated they have never seen a board member, either.
Why am I to believe a member of the school board knows more about what’s best for the students of the Ashtabula Area City Schools than a parent, teacher, coach, student, athlete or administrator? The members of the board have never seen Zannelli, or any of the coaches, for that matter, in action.
An elected official is to be informed on the issues. He or she should listen to the people who elected him and make an educated decision. In this case, it has not happened.
The people have not been heard. The board hasn’t seen Zannelli do the job he loves so much. All it has is a file, which has so far remained secret, a recommendation from Colucci to renew the contract and a folder full of complaints no one knows exists.
Instead of answering to the community, Vaught continues to post statuses on Facebook that are certainly unbecoming of someone making important decisions for a school district and taunts the voters who elected her. Screenshots prove as such. One particularly offensive post has since been deleted, but is telling of exactly how she has handled this situation. Essentially, she said the first rule of serving the public is screw what the people who elected her think.
What the people want is for the board to be accountable for its decision. The fact that answers have not been given, explanations died somewhere between executive session and the vote and the evidence the board claims to have in favor of its decision has not been turned over, despite the fact the board is legally bound to do so, is a huge red flag to the people who put the board members in their seats.
As a voter in the district, I won’t tell others how to vote in the elections in coming years. I will, however, tell them how I will vote. With Zannelli in mind, I will vote against each of the four board members who decided he was not worthy of keeping his job.
After all, I know about as much about the school board and its decision as the school board knows about Greg Zannelli and the job he’s done.