It's been brewing for awhile now, and Monday night at Chantilly High, emotions turned into angry words as some 50 parents confronted the school's athletic director, Donna King.
Upset about school spirit, the Chargers' recent abysmal athletic performances and the way in which coaches are hired at Chantilly, parents attending a sports booster meeting there asked some tough questions. They received answers, but most left as frustrated and unsatisfied as when they'd arrived.
"I think we're moving in the right direction, but nobody's convinced there's gonna be changes on the administrative side," said parent Nancye Bates afterward. "And [FCPS Director of Student Activities] Paul Jansen danced around the issues."
STILL, SHE HOPES Jansen — who spoke at Monday's meeting — will now bring these issues to Cluster VII Director Lillian Lowery. Said Bates: "The administrative issues have to be addressed, and [Chantilly's] hiring practices are still suspect."
By many measures, Chantilly is one of the most outstanding in the state. Its band and choirs continually win awards and its theater program brings home Cappies.
And in June, Chantilly won the Wachovia Cup for academics for the sixth time in 10 years — coming in first out of 140 AAA schools. It's awarded for excellence in Virginia High School League magazines, newspaper, yearbook, theater, scholastic tests, forensics, debate and creative writing.
Yet when it comes to athletic victories and school spirit, many parents believe the school is sorely lacking. Sports booster parents discussed the issue in December and January. They wrote e-mails expressing their feelings about the sports programs and coaches and, on Jan. 10, they were presented en masse to King.
The cover memo was signed from "Chantilly Community — Concerned Parents." The text noted that competitive athletic programs go hand-in-hand with the high-school experience and told King, "You are accountable for much of what has gone wrong. What are you going to do to change it?"
In e-mail after e-mail, parents decried the lack of school spirit and lamented the fact that many families are relocating so their children won't have to come to Chantilly. "We have talked to parents who intend to move their kids out of Chantilly to other schools in order to ensure their children are in successful athletic programs," wrote Joan and Bill Knecht.
TY WITMER CITED three top athletes — two boys and a girl — on his street who have "gone out of their way to attend another school because of the Chantilly athletic program. One family went as far as selling their home to relocate to another school."
Bates said parents don't expect state championships, but they do expect the school to be competitive within its own district. "Changes must be made to support a positive and healthy environment for the children of our Chantilly community," wrote Bates. "The high school director of activities is not providing these programs with the proper support and coaching to be a competitive high school."
Deneen Vaughn said she's never seen a school "with such poor morale. The programs and teams should be led by coaches who know what it means to win. After all, how many sports are played just for the fun of it?"
Under new coach Marty Riddle, the Charger football team was 0-10 last season and, wrote Vaughn, "We've allowed our football program to go from decent to just flat out bad by settling for mediocrity in the selected coach." Added Pete House: "Mr. Riddle does not even have a winning record. I understand [King] interviewed some very good coaches with outstanding records, yet she hires him."
When House and his family first moved here, he said Chantilly was full of team and community spirit. "I don't see it anymore, and no one has many positive things to say about CHS," he wrote. "We need to do something about this and fast. We have gone from being a powerhouse to being the town joke. I, for one, would like some answers."
AGREEING, another parent said Chantilly's athletic program is gaining a "laughing-stock reputation for its coaching decisions and commitment to compete." And Witmer worried because "athletics plays such a key role in the social well-being of a student population. For many students, their self-esteem is influenced by the morale of the greater student body."
He said Chantilly should seek out and recruit excellent coaches from around the county, openly explain hiring criteria and not choose coaches in secret, "without regard to the community's wishes." Furthermore, wrote Witmer, "Give students some room to express themselves and positively show their enthusiasm through events such as spirit days, pep rallies, bonfires, etc. Don't consider these events potential 'troublemakers.'"
At Monday's meeting, King noted Chantilly's Purple Patrol — purple-clad students who cheer at the games — and said, "I think we have a lot of school spirit." Yet, said Witmer, "She was originally against the Purple Patrol at the basketball games. The spirit at the games has been in spite of the administration."
The Knechts noted the many CYA boys and girls Division 1 soccer, basketball and football teams that regularly win tournaments and division championships. So, they asked, "Why is it that the high-school teams seem to struggle when there seems to be a bumper crop of young athletes?"
CYA wrestling coach Doug Newcomb — glad these issues are finally being raised — wrote of the difficulty he's had getting access to the school for his team practices. After being allotted Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Tuesday was changed to Monday.
"We were told 'other' activities had priority on Tuesday evenings — cheerleading, marching band, drumline, etc.," he wrote. "After checking the schedules of those activities and actually going to see if they were in use over the next month and a half, I discovered they were not."
As a result, wrote Newcomb, "We lost 30 percent of all kids who registered for CYA wrestling since they could not participate as originally scheduled." One parent said he rearranged his son's violin schedule based on the original times and, when they were changed, he wasn't able to readjust it.
NEWCOMB SAID lack of sufficient practice time hurt his athletes' ability to be competitive — and CYA's the main feeder to Chantilly's wrestling program. Not surprisingly, he said, Chantilly's wrestling program is "not competitive with other schools in Fairfax County, Northern Virginia or the state. The program consistently finishes in the bottom half of all Fairfax County high schools."
Monday night, Dave Morgan with the county Recreation Department, said he has to schedule the building for use by many groups — adults, included — "on an equitable basis." And King said Chantilly holds clinics for CYA students and coaches and encourages students to help coach CYA teams.
Regarding pep rallies, she said the student body's too large to fit in the gym all at once, so the SGA is "working on alternatives." She also said students "don't have the same interest in pep rallies that we did in our day." And Principal Tammy Turner said school-system regulations prevent students from being excused from classes for "entertainment purposes."
King said many students attend sports events "as a social thing," going whether the teams win or lose. "I think you're wrong," replied a dad. "Kids don't come to the games because we lose all the time."
When hiring coaches, said Jansen, "We try to look at existing staff first. We look for people who are good with kids. We look at retired teachers who have an understanding of kids and the time [to devote] to them." Besides, he told parents, "There aren't as many good coaches out there as you'd think."
He said they're either chosen by a panel or just a couple people. "How can you find the best coach for kids by talking to one person?" asked a father.
Mom Tamra Wooten said JV baseball "had a wonderful coach last year. The kids learned from him and respected him but, when the varsity coach left, he wasn't given the opportunity to apply [for the job]." When he then resigned, she said, "Not only did we lose him from the team, we lost him from the school — and the boys were devastated."
KING SAID the coach told her he couldn't handle the varsity time commitment plus his family, but another mom said, "He's a varsity coach somewhere else." Former subschool principal Garland Cooper is Chantilly's new varsity baseball coach, but a dad said Cooper hadn't coached since the 1970s.
Wooten said that might cost their children college scholarships, but King said, "The really good kids will get them. We hired the person who we thought was best for the kids, given the circumstances at the time." But, countered Vaughn, "If we're not winning or promoting our student athletes, they don't get seen."
However, dad Bill Wolff said his children loved Cooper and parents should give him a fair chance. King said Cooper's helped Chantilly's baseball program for several years, and Turner added, "We wanted someone level-headed and mature."
Cross-country coach Matt Gilchrist said King and Turner have always given the coaches what they need. "Let's work together," he said. "I bet, in a few years, our football and baseball programs will be back up."
Varsity football coach Riddle said Chantilly's administration is supportive, and he noted clinics that Chantilly's held for CYA football players. Still, he said, "A kid that's ultra-successful at youth-sports level isn't always successful at high-school level. Chantilly is made up of good kids; but if you don't do things in a smart way, you're gonna get negative results."
Riddle said "a limited number of seniors" participate in football, but he's trying to recruit more players. If we can eliminate the negative attitude — and with [parents'] support — we can be successful."
Dad Kirby Smith said that, in business, hiring is a systematic process but, at Chantilly, "a system is lacking." He said kids here do care about sports and "if you hire the best, it'll help improve the program. If you don't have a good coach, it's a mark against you and does affect [college opportunities]."
After King announced that school psychologist Jim McGraw will now coach golf, dad Rick Hutchison questioned that decision. But regarding Chantilly, he said, "It's a great community, and we need to support it."
Indeed, parents emphasized that they're being so vocal because they care so much about the school and want the best for it. "We urge the CHS administration to stand up and hear our collective cry," wrote Heather and Rob Morris. "Take note of what we are saying, recognize the consistencies of parent concerns and acknowledge the significance of our numbers. This is our home school and we want to bring it back to the community."
Turner said parents have hers and King's commitment, but everyone needs to pull together. She said hiring a coach is "more than just a W-L record. It's looking at the whole human being and what he brings to the kids and to the school. We ask you to trust us to make the best decision we can, at the time. Our hearts are in the right place to do the best thing for our kids. Your concerns are valid to us, and we want to do what we can to resolve them."