The Rockville Centre school district acted wrongfully in 2021 when it did not rehire two South Side High School girls varsity soccer coaches, according to a ruling by arbitrator Dennis J.Campagna.
The ruling, obtained by Newsday, ordered the district to pay former coaches Jennifer Abgarian and Christopher Aloisi the salaries they would have received if they had coached that season. The amount of the payments was not disclosed in the decision, which was rendered in January. Abgarian, the head coach, and Aloisi, an assistant coach, led South Side to the Nassau County Class A championship in the 2021 spring season, earning Abgarian Newsday’s girls soccer Coach of the Year honors. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 fall season was moved to the spring, and there was no Long Island championship or state tournament.
High school coaches are appointed on a year-to-year basis, and the school’s then-Superintendent June Chang, and Athletic Director Carol Roseto, recommended Abgarian and Aloisi be brought back for the 2021 fall season. Abgarian had coached the team for four seasons, reaching the postseason each year.
On July 21, 2021, the school board voted 3-2 against the recommendations to bring the coaches back. The decision was met with community outcry and a demonstration by players and parents outside the school on July 28. The board called an emergency meeting for Aug. 2, 2021, to allow the public to voice its concerns. The board refused to answer questions and did not offer an explanation as to why it voted against the recommendations, citing a policy of not discussing personnel matters.
Those at the meeting who spoke in support of the board’s decision said Aloisi was not in a position to select the varsity roster because he would show favoritism to the players who pay to play for the East Meadow Soccer Club, a summer travel team for which Aloisi works. Abgarian was not affiliated with any outside soccer programs.
“While I recognize that athletes have to play on the most competitive travel team available, I also recognize the conflict of interest of having the same coach for both,” Meghan Zelles, a parent in the district, said at the public meeting.
The Rockville Centre teachers union filed a grievance on behalf of the coaches, who are middle school teachers in the district. The grievance was denied by the district’s Board of Education and went to the independent arbitrator.
“The arbitrator’s decision validates 100 percent that we hadn’t done anything wrong,” Abgarian told Newsday. “Our goal in teaching and coaching was always to serve the district and its students.”
Campagna’s decision said the five-person board acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner, adding that “the two candidates … were clearly qualified and why the BOE chose not to appoint them remains a mystery.” The coach recommendation policy has existed for 34 years, and this was the first time a recommendation was not approved by the board, according to the ruling.
“It proves everything and validates what we were saying,” Aloisi told Newsday. “We were always trying to do the right things by the [South Side girls soccer] program.”
Adam Ross, who represented the Rockville Centre district in arbitration, said the district had no comment on the decision. Rockville Centre Superintendent of Schools Matthew Gaven, who took over the post on July 1,, did not return calls for comment.
Three weeks after the board voted not to bring back the coaches, Chang abruptly resigned 13 months into a five-year contract, calling it “a family decision.” Asked at the time if the board’s decision about the soccer coaches played a role in his resignation, Chang said, “I still stand by those recommendations.”
South Side ultimately hired former South Side coach Judi Croutier, who stopped coaching in 2010 after winning eight Long Island championships and five state titles. In the 2021 fall season, the team won the Long Island Class A championship for schools with enrollments between 400 and 799 students and reached the state title game on Nov. 14, losing to New Hartford, 2-1. Croutier returned as coach for the 2022 season, and South Side reached the postseason but lost its first playoff game.