, Newburyport, MA

January 23, 2008

Coach hire draws ethics complaint; Cheerleader parents see nepotism in giving job to AD's daughter

By Dan Guttenplan , Sports editor

BYFIELD - Several parents of Triton cheerleaders confirmed yesterday that at least one parent has filed a complaint with the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission, asking it to probe the hiring of Erin Dempsey, daughter of Triton Athletic Director David Dempsey, as cheerleading coach.

Erin Dempsey was hired on Dec. 6 to replace Kristen Almquist, who had coached the team for five seasons. Almquist said David Dempsey met with her on Nov. 20 and told her that her leadership qualities had been called into question by at least one parent and that he would not be renewing her contract.

Neither Dempsey nor High School Principal Kevin McLaughlin have gone public with the reasons for the coaching change, citing a school policy of not discussing personnel matters. Almquist said she was never told why she was fired.

The person filing the complaint was not identified. However, Bill Levasseur, a parent of high school students who has been vocal on the school's recent coaching changes, characterized the hiring of the athletic director's daughter as nepotism and a conflict of interest.

The state Ethics Commission, as a standing policy, will not confirm or deny it is conducting an investigation. It will only acknowledge an investigation took place if it finds state ethics laws have been broken.

State ethics laws say that public employees, in general, may not "hire, promote, supervise, or otherwise participate in the employment of your immediate family member."

In an interview with The Daily News, McLaughlin accepted responsibility for all hirings and firings of Triton athletic coaches. He said, if given the opportunity, he would not change anything about the way the administration handled the issue.

"I'm disappointed with the reaction in a sense that it was not part of a conversation anyone had with me," McLaughlin said, referring to the ethics complaint. "I don't know who filed the complaint, so I can't speak further on it."

Almquist's departure brought strong protests from the cheerleading squad. Upon hearing the news of Almquist's departure prior to her last school commitment - the Thanksgiving Day football game - the Triton cheerleading parents started a petition to have her reinstated. The Triton cheerleaders also held a silent protest at halftime of the Thanksgiving game rather than performing their regular routine.

Superintendent Sandra Halloran granted a meeting with the parents of cheerleaders on Dec. 4. The school went without a cheerleading coach for the first two weeks of the winter sports season before Erin Dempsey's hire. The 28-year-old is a first-year English teacher at Triton Regional High and also holds a coaching position at Yellowjackets All-Star Cheerleading in Middleton.

McLaughlin decided to invite Almquist to return to the team this winter to act as a consultant to Erin Dempsey. Almquist accepted the invitation but has only attended one practice to date.

"We made a specific concession to help the transition specific to the girls' routines," McLaughlin said, explaining why she was brought back. "In the conversations the parents had with Dr. Halloran, one of the issues raised was the loss of time. Routines might be the area that would suffer the most. We made a concession for that reason."

As of Tuesday evening, Triton School Committee Chairman Susan Fish and McLaughlin were not aware the complaint had been filed.

"It does look bad," Fish said. "But unfortunately there were a chain of circumstances that left us in a bind. The No. 1 concern was getting someone in there as soon as possible. I can only think that was a difficult task."

Levasseur, a Byfield resident, has five children in the Triton school system - two of whom attend Triton Regional High. Upon hearing the news of the cheerleading coaching change, he addressed an e-mail to Halloran, Fish and several School Committee members requesting to speak at the next meeting on Jan. 23.

His initial frustration stemmed from the firing of Triton hockey coach Drew Wile last summer. Wile was replaced after he refused to give a varsity letter to a player who quit his team.

"One parent called and complained, and Wile got fired," Levasseur said Monday evening. "In Kristen Almquist's case, 20 parents complained because they didn't want her fired, and she still got fired. And they hired the AD's daughter? That's nepotism. It's a conflict of interest."

McLaughlin said he will oversee Erin Dempsey, while David Dempsey will oversee all other coaches. The principal does not view Erin Dempsey's hire as a temporary fix.

"I'm not looking at it that way at all," McLaughlin said. "She's qualified. She agreed to help us out in this situation."

Levasseur said he brought the issue to the School Committee because he does not feel the Triton administration will offer answers.

"My problem is that they always say, 'We don't discuss personnel issues,'" Levasseur said. "This is my school district. If something inappropriate happens, I want to know. This isn't a private organization. We vote to hire the School Committee. They hire the superintendent. We deserve to know if there are problems with the faculty."

Fish confirmed receipt of an e-mail from one disgruntled parent but did not specify if it was Levasseur. She said she would offer that parent an opportunity to speak at the next School Committee meeting.

"I'm e-mailing him to find out if he'd like to meet with Dr. Halloran first," Fish said. "But he's more than welcome to be put on the agenda."

Levasseur said he will accept that invitation.

"I'm going to the next meeting," he said. "There will be an opportunity to speak in the first few minutes from what I understand. My guess is I'll state my case for three minutes and get dismissed. But I'll ask to be put on the agenda."