More than 160 students and parents logged onto the December 22 Onteora School Board videoconference to voice support for district athletic director Kim Pilla, who was placed on paid administrative leave through January 15. The participants waited for about 90 minutes while district staff struggled through a variety of issues.
Superintendent Victoria McLaren and school board president Laurie Osmond declined to comment on the Pilla matter or provide a reason for the action. “I’m sorry I cannot provide information related to personnel items,” McLaren said. She cited New York State School Board Association guidance that school-board members could access personnel files “to help make decisions on personnel matters such as appointments, assignments, promotions, demotions, pay, discipline or dismissal.”
Osmond moved to direct McLaren to bring Pilla’s personnel file into the board’s next executive session. The motion passed.
Bringing the district together
McLaren has recently spoken out about the lack of state guidance and inconsistencies between Covid-19 guidelines for academic settings and extracurricular activities as a reason not to allow sports to resume. Pilla had not taken a public position. It is not clear whether this might have been a factor in the administrative leave.
Pilla did not respond to a request for comment.
About 30 people spoke via teleconference in favor of how Pilla looks out for student participation in athletics, joins in games during gym class, and often drives many miles to watch games and a support the school teams.
“I would like you, as a board, to take the time you have to evaluate Kim Pilla based on the people on this meeting and her performance,” said Dave Alterio. a former coach and Class of 1992 graduate. “I don’t know at what level we can consider Kim a failure when it comes to our students.” What did she do that “we have recommendations from the superintendent and assistant superintendent to recommend she not be here”?
Modified boys basketball coach Mark Wilens noted the gains made under Pilla’s watch. “Anyone who has paid attention to our athletics programs in the past few years knows how much our programs have improved,” Wilens said. He asked what steps had been taken to mediate conflicts “before it got this far.”
“I am asking you to do your due diligence as a board,” parent and former trustee Lindsay Shane’s urged. “Reach out to the AD herself.”
“A wonderful role model”
Shands said one of Pilla’s greatest accomplishments has been bringing the district back together. “For the first time in forever, other districts are talking about our school as one to watch,” she said. “The students are already suffering, and this just adds to confusion and mistrust.”
Grace Hallinan, who graduated this year, said she was heartbroken by the news. She hoped the comments would help reverse the decision. “The AD has been in the room, sneakers on, ready to engage the students in PE class,” Hallinan said. Pilla had started badminton tournaments in gym class and restored school spirit.
Ursula Hallinan. Grace’s mother, said Pilla has accomplished more in hew few years at Onteora than anyone in decades and cares about the students. She said Pilla called multiple times to check when her daughter was recovering from knee surgery. “She’s there in the morning greeting kids by name,” Ursula Hallinan said. “She has an open-door policy, and kids are not afraid to use it.”
Sophomore Jasmine Rider said that Pilla stops by practices to check in, and that her office was always open. “She only wants the best for the students and treats every one of us as her own. She is a brilliant asset and wonderful role model,” Rider said.
“Our AD has brought this district together in ways I haven’t seen in six years of volunteering,” said parent and 1992 graduate Dale Allison. “She takes the time to listen to kids, community, parents and anyone who crosses her path.”
Olive town recreation director Gene Sorbelli said Pilla had been instrumental in pulling the community together during the controversial transition from the Indians mascot to the Eagles and is a valuable asset. “Unless she burned the building down or stole a million dollars, I don’t understand this decision,” Sorbelli said. “She has created a great culture and for some reason it has rubbed people the wrong way. You wouldn’t have 100 people at a board meeting unless it was raising taxes or something else.”
Parent Renee Ross said the many athletic directors who preceded Pilla barely knew her, but Pilla had taken the time to get to know the families.“I’ve had five children go through district. No one knows who I am, but Kim Pilla knows my whole family,” Ross said.
Growing school spirit
“Miss Pilla has created not only an impact on Onteora athletics but the entire school,” added Ross’s son Patrick. “She has been one of the most supportive, engaged and enthusiastic people I’ve ever met and anyone who has seen her in the halls or at any event held knows her for her high-fives in the hall all the way to filling the bleachers with every student and parent. To grow school spirit is what she is all about.”
Pilla brought attention and notice to sporting events almost no one would go to, he added, and “created an environment that made every student comfortable in wanting to be involved in whatever she came up with.”
Sibling Nick Ross said Pilla had brought the most school spirit he’s seen in his years at Onteora. “The gym went from completely empty for our wrestling meets. Last year was the first time that they had to pull out more bleachers for people that were actually getting excited to watch. Students were getting excited to watch. Parents were getting excited.”
Marlboro athletic Director Jonnah O’Donnell credited Pilla for a drastic turnaround in Onteora sports. “What impressed me the most is in the last 3 years there has been a major change,” O’Donnell said. “Your sports were down. There was no community at the games. In the last few years that changed. she said. It was important to get perspective from an outsider from a district Onteora competed against. O’Donnell noted how after games Pilla would make sure the students had enough money to get food from the concession stand, often lending them her own money.
“Whetever personal agendas the board or administration has, you need to put them aside, because the best candidate for the job is currently on your staff,” said Jon Hochberg, a 1992 Onteora graduate and Queensboro College athletic director.
The recommendation to place Pilla on administrative leave was placed on the consent agenda, a portion of the meeting where routine items are lumped into one section for passage in one motion. Osmond had tried to have the administrative leave separated for further clarification, but failed. “I do not feel I have enough information to vote on all the items in the consent agenda,” she said.
Trustee Dafne DeJesus said she too didn’t have enough information and abstained from voting on the consent agenda. Board vice-resident Rob Kurnit voted against it. Trustees Bennet Ratcliff, Kevin Salem, Emily Sherry and Valerie Storey voted in favor of all the items.
There is nothing in the state Freedom of Information Law or the Open Meetings Law that prohibits a government agency from discussing personnel matters in public, but there is also nothing requiring them to do so, according to Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the state Committee on Open Government.