Editor’s note, 11/21 5:53 p.m.: this article has been updated with a statement from Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker.
Columbia High School will have a new varsity baseball head coach this spring.
The South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to hire James Whalen, a physical education teacher at Valley View Middle School in Denville. Whalen will be paid $6,566.
He replaces the embattled Joseph Fischetti, who has been under a cloud of bullying allegations for the past two years. Though initially cleared of the charges, a separate independent HIB (Harassment Intimidation and Bullying) investigation ordered by Superintendent Dr. John Ramos found that Fischetti and assistant coach Matt Becht were guilty of two incidents of using “inappropriate language” in the 2014 season.
After learning of the results in a closed session in July, the board announced in August its intention to hire a new coach. (Fischetti was also one of several parties named in a lawsuit filed by a former player.)
Whalen graduated from Montclair State University in 2001 where he was a pitcher for the baseball team and a member of 2000 team that won the Division III National Championship, said a SOMSD spokeswoman. He was the assistant varsity coach at West Essex High School from 2007-2016. “During that time, West Essex won the county championship in 2006 & 2010, they also won the State Sectional Championship in 2009, 2010, 2011 and finished as the #1 team in the state in 2010. Jim was also a member of the Essex/Union County Underclass All Star Game coaching staff.”
“This is a very positive development,” said Randy Nathan, who alleged his son was subjected to bullying by the coaches during his time on the team. “The BOE and school district have taken a very important step in addressing the culture within the baseball program.”
Drew Dix, president of the CHS Baseball Boosters board, said that while he stood behind Fischetti and wanted him rehired, the board fully supports Whalen. “We are in very good hands going forward and the program will flourish under Jim Whalen. He is tremendously qualified and the program will continue to prosper under his guidance.”
Steve Farsiou, the attorney for Fischetti and Becht, said the two coaches were “upset and disappointed” by the board’s decision, which he called a mishandling of the HIB law and a case of “catering to a couple of parents.”
The coaches have “done everything they’ve been asked to do by the board for last two years,” said Farsiou, and had received an outpouring of support from current and former players and their parents. The board’s decision will “have ramifications down the road for them…it tells parents if you complain loud enough we’ll change the coach.”
Asked what his clients’ next step would be, Farsiou said he would not rule out a lawsuit. In addition, if the district finds merit to any other HIB complaints currently being investigated — which he said he would find shocking — the coaches would appeal the findings.
“We will look at everything; nothing is off the table on our side.”
Dix also had harsh words for the Board of Education, which he believes bungled the entire situation and ultimately decided not to rehire Fischetti “to appease a couple of complaining parents.”
Dix said Athletic Director Larry Busichio organized an interview committee of seven people, comprised of baseball parents and school district administrators (none of whom worked at CHS). They interviewed six candidates — two of whom were Fischetti and Becht — and recommended Fischetti as the most qualified.
Dix pointed out that under Fischetti, the team won two straight conference championships and has risen in the SEC conference ranking which “puts us on a schedule with some of the best programs in the state.”
However, Dix said that Ramos rejected the committee’s recommendation and selected Whalen from a subsequent interview session before Wednesday’s meeting.
Calling the board’s actions “dismissive and callous,” Dix said, “Our kids are wondering how this board, people in their community, could behave with such disregard for their hard work and their will…furtively, in secret ‘executive session,’ with such poor communication and without one board member going on record to stand up and state how they honestly felt or why they chose this mind boggling course of action.”
The board should “think deeply about their motivations in this case, make better choices that are more openly communicated next time, respect those they may not agree with, receive and listen to feedback, and make what’s best for the students their top priority,” said Dix.
In a statement emailed to The Village Green, Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker wrote:
“Neither Board members nor District representatives are legally permitted to comment on personnel, HIB or other matters involving student or staff privacy. However, under the ethics code applicable to school board members, board members have clearly defined obligations which I believe our Board takes seriously.
Last February, members of the CHS baseball community, asked the Board to ensure that the District’s hiring process and resulting Board appointment would be conducted well in advance of the baseball season so that there was clarity for all stakeholders and student players would not be left feeling anxious regarding the upcoming season. That message resonated. The Administration posted the position at the start of the school year and initiated that hiring process.
While there are deep feelings on many sides, I am heartened that all stakeholders are committed to a creating a positive climate for the team. I urge all members of our community to provide strong support for our players, coach and school as the baseball team moves forward into the spring season representing CHS.”