“From my end, we think (spring) coaches deserve to get paid,” says Gorham High Athletic Director Tim Spear. “They’re a big part of kids’ lives throughout the entire year, they just happen to get paid for a time period from March 31 to June 15.” Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

Maine’s high school sports spring season never had a chance in 2020. Delayed on March 13 because of the encroaching coronavirus outbreak, the spring season was canceled by the Maine Principals’ Association on April 9.

No official practices were ever held, no games were played.

Which leads to a question that school districts have been wrestling with across the state: Should coaches be paid for a season that never took place?

The answers vary, even in neighboring communities. For example, Waterville is paying its spring coaches in full; Winslow is not paying them at all. Traip Academy in Kittery is paying its coaches in full; York is paying 10 percent of the stipend.

“Even within our own conference, it’s all over the place,” said Tim Spear, the athletic director at Gorham, which is paying its coaches partial stipends. “We’re all trying to do what we think is the right thing.”

The dilemma over whether to pay or not pay rests with school boards and superintendents, typically with input from athletic directors who work closely with the coaches.

The financial health of a school district plays a critical factor in the decisions, particularly with uncertainty about the continued economic toll of the pandemic. So does trying to put a dollar sign on the overall impact of coaches, many of whom work with their athletes year-round – including now, with schools closed and students having to learn remotely.

The Portland Press Herald and Central Maine Newspapers surveyed high schools across the state on the issue, with 98 responding. At nearly one-third of the schools, coaches will not be paid this spring. At about half of the schools, coaches will be paid a portion of their stipends or in full. Decisions have yet to be made at 13 percent of the schools.

Coaching stipends generally run from around $2,000 at the middle school and sub-varsity level up to $6,000 for a varsity head coach. The size of coaching staffs vary widely across the state, as do school budgets for coaches. Gorham has a spring coaching budget of $125,000 for approximately 30 positions, Spear said.

At Marshwood, a school with an enrollment of 784 in southwestern York County, there are 15 high school and seven middle school spring coaches. All will be paid fully. At Forest Hills, a school of just 40 students in northern Somerset County, there are only two paid positions in the spring, the head baseball and softball coaches. Neither will be paid.

The larger the school, the more likely a coach is to receive a full stipend. The state’s two largest schools, according to MPA enrollment figures, Thornton Academy in Saco (1,476 students) and Lewiston High (1,420), are paying full stipends.

The smaller the enrollment, the less likely coaches are to receive any payment. Of the 32 schools that indicated they are not paying their coaches, 15 have enrollments under 300, including four with fewer than 100 students. The largest schools not paying stipends are Messalonskee in Oakland (735 students), Camden Hills (693), and Erskine Academy in South China (581).

But there are outliers. Stearns High in Millinocket (160 students) and Jonesport-Beals (77) are paying full stipends.

“There’s no one clear answer to what schools are doing with spring stipends,” said Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director. “The decision to pay, not pay or partially pay is one that rests with the local districts. But we know the value of these coaches and their communication with the kids. Making sure they’re safe and healthy is something we do encourage.”

SCHOOLS NOT PAYING SPRING COACHES

Winslow Superintendent Peter Thiboutot cited the economic impact of the pandemic in his decision not to pay spring coaches: “Many of our taxpayers have lost their jobs … Knowing that, I could not support the notion that we would issue contracts and pay a stipend for a season that didn’t occur. Doing so would be fiscally irresponsible.” Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

No one can predict when the pandemic will end, but all agree that the longer it continues, the greater the toll on the economy. As school officials prepare budgets, they are cognizant that state funding will likely decrease. And they are looking to save money wherever possible.

That uncertainty played a role at Presque Isle, which is not paying coaching stipends this spring.

“I think the decision to pay or not to pay coaches this spring would be a lot easier if we knew what was going to happen in the fall,” said Athletic Director Mark White. “It’s really up in the air. … I guess we didn’t want to do anything without knowing what the financials are going to be coming down the road.”

The Wildcats typically have 11 coaches on their high school staff in the spring, for baseball, softball, track and tennis. White said the stipends run from $2,200 for assistants to $5,200 for head coaches.

Not knowing if there are going to be sports in the fall, White said the school did not want to set a precedent that it couldn’t follow later. “If you start something in the spring, you’re going to have to do it in the fall,” he said. “At least in my mind, there’s enough uncertainty about the fall that that came into play. And it’s not just with coaches, but any co-curricular activity or programming.

“If we had a clear future of what’s going to happen in the fall, I would have made another run at the superintendent (to get funding for the stipends).”

Coaches are not being paid at Winslow. They were told of the decision in an email from Superintendent Peter Thiboutot dated April 20, obtained by the Morning Sentinel.

“I try to be consistent in the way in which decisions are made,” Thiboutot wrote. “Past practice has been if we don’t have enough students to run a program, we don’t pay the coaches a stipend for not coaching.

“Along with the impact on schools, COVID-19 has impacted many in the Winslow Community. Many of our taxpayers have lost their jobs and are currently receiving unemployment at a reduced rate of their regular income. Knowing that, I could not support the notion that we would issue contracts and pay a stipend for a season that didn’t occur. Doing so would be fiscally irresponsible.”

Ken Nadeau, Winslow’s head track and field coach, said he’ll continue to be a resource for his athletes.

“I am not surprised by the decision but understand and respect the board’s position to not pay the stipends. No coach does it for the money. We do it for the betterment of the community through the young people in school,” he said.

At Forest Hills, baseball coach Ed Cuddy and softball coach Jean Turner will not be paid their $3,200 stipends, Athletic Director Anthony Amero said.

Neither Cuddy nor Turner had yet signed contracts for the season when it was canceled, Amero said. While MPA rules allow spring teams to begin practices in mid-March, the Tigers typically start a little later, as their games begin a week later than most schools around the state, Amero said.

“It’s truly unfair for our coaches and coaches across the state,” Amero said. “Our coaches have been great about the whole thing. They’re disappointed for the kids.”

At Maranacook Community School in Readfield, none of the 16 spring coaches will receive stipends. The school had to cancel some contracts with coaches.

Baseball Coach Eric Brown was one of the coaches who had been given a contract, and while he said he was hopeful the stipends would be paid, he gets the dilemma.

“If they got paid out, I understand that people could have issues with that. And if it doesn’t get paid out, there are people that are going to have issues with that as well,” he said. “I’m kind of looking at the two-way street of it all. … I feel bad for the people that have to make that decision.”

Brown did say he was concerned for how that could affect Maranacook’s coaches going forward, especially if the fall and winter seasons are in doubt.

“If they can’t rely on that (income) coming in, would they look to do something else to fill in those financial needs?” he said. “There are some coaches that coach more than one season. … Based on what happened in the spring, are they going to say ‘Well, I can’t rely on that income coming in now. Maybe I need to find something else?’”

SCHOOLS PAYING FULL STIPENDS

Girls’ lacrosse coach Gretchen Livingston and other spring coaches at Cony High will receive full stipends. She meets with her team online twice a week. “The priority is to keep the relationship going,” Livingston says. “I want us to still be able to have a Cony girls’ lacrosse team culture.” Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

The issue of loyalty came into play with many of the schools that opted to pay full stipends.

Jeff Porter, the superintendent for MSAD 51, which includes Greely High in Cumberland, said officials there did not want to lose their coaches.

“Some of our coaches, quite frankly, do work outside of the season as well, whether it’s in summer, working with kids, weight lifting, checking in with kids, seeing how they’re doing,” said Porter. “Many of our coaches have been doing this for many, many years. They’re tied to the community and we wanted them to understand we valued them … We want these people.”

Porter said there were discussions to only partially pay the stipends, as many of their neighboring communities are doing. But, he said, “If we’re going to pay them, just pay them.”

Stearns High in Millinocket is one of the smaller schools in the state, with an enrollment of just 160 students. For Athletic Director Beth Peavey, the decision to pay the full stipend to her spring coaches was an easy one.

“They are providing another layer of support for our students,” she said. “I just think it was the only decision. I think that it was, yes, the right thing to do, but it was also really the only thing to do. These coaches will do anything for the students, anything for their programs. And the superintendent and I were in agreement with what we should do.”

Stearns softball coach Nick Cullen, who will receive about $3,600 this spring, said he expected some complaints about the decision, but hasn’t heard any. “Most people are on the side of, ‘Those guys work hard, they deserve it,’” he said. “We have good support.”

Cullen, the girls’ basketball coach and a math teacher at the school, is also the middle school athletic director. His coaches there are getting paid fully as well.

“You don’t coach for the money; if you figure all the hours you put in, you might make a buck an hour,” he said. “But you do budget for that money, you do have a place for it to go. So it’s nice to get the money.”

Waterville is another school paying full stipends, ranging from $3,295 to $5,202

“Our coaches have been fabulous with engaging their student-athletes, working within the guidelines of the MPA,” said Athletic Director Heidi Bernier. “Some have set up Google Classrooms, while others have sent videos with suggested individual workouts. Our spring coaches are working hard to be a support system for our student-athletes, encouraging them to keep up with their academics, and offering sound advice on how to stay active.”

In Augusta, the school board voted to pay the Cony High stipends in full, with the stipulation that the coaches continue to work with their athletes.

“We issued contracts (to the coaches), people returned their contracts, Cony is honoring those contracts,” said Athletic Director Jon Millett. “Our coaches are expected to engage our athletes, providing them emotional support, providing them individualized workouts within the guidelines that the MPA has given us … This is a recognition of the work that they do, the work that they’ve done and the work that they will continue to do.”

“I was not totally surprised,” said Cony girls’ lacrosse coach Gretchen Livingston, “but just thankful, grateful that they recognized everything that we do.”

Livingston meets with her team online twice a week for a total of two to three hours. One meeting will be about workouts and fitness – one, for instance, was a Zumba session with a certified instructor – while the other covers any other topic, be it team bonding or emotional support.

“The priority is to keep the relationship going,” Livingston said. “I want us to still be able to have a Cony girls’ lacrosse team culture.”

The Wells-Ogunquit School District is paying its coaches in full, and made the decision before the season was officially canceled.

“We made the commitment regardless of whether the spring would be truncated or not and we let them know that,” said Wells High Athletic Director Pierce Cole. “We made a commitment to honor their contract. (The pandemic) is completely out of their control, and as a district we were going to pay all our employees and didn’t think coaches should be treated any differently.”

Marshwood Athletic Director Rich Buzzell said paying 100 percent shows a little loyalty on the administration’s end.

“Our people made a commitment to us,” said Buzzell. “To keep those guys around and make sure they’re taken care of, provides a loyalty piece on both ends.”

Andy Pooler, the baseball coach at Mt. Desert Island High School, donated a portion of the full stipend he received to Acadian Youth Sports and toward youth scholarships at the Downeast Family YMCA. Two other coaches at the school also donated some of their stipends to charity. Michael G. Seamans

For some coaches, the decision to pay full stipends provided an opportunity to help others.

At Mt. Desert Island High, three coaches – Andy Pooler (baseball), Tyler Hunt (tennis) and Jamey Lewis (softball) – decided to use a portion of their stipends to make donations to area charities.

Pooler made donations to Acadian Youth Sports and toward youth scholarships at the Downeast Family YMCA.

“I would hate to see a family turned away because they were negatively affected by the virus and didn’t have the funds to participate,” Pooler said.

Hunt made a donation to the MDI Backpack Program, a food program that helps area students. Lewis, who declined to be interviewed for this story, made donations to the Backpack Program, Acadia Wildlife and to an area family who has a pet that needs surgery, according to MDI Athletic Director Bunky Dow.

“This is an outstanding gesture from the coaches, and not something that was expected,” Dow said. “I’m very proud to work with coaches who think of others during these difficult times for the community.”

“The inspiration (to give) is Bunky Dow,” Hunt said. “He’s the one that’s been pushing for payments of the coaches. He’s been our leader when it comes to the COVID-19 response. Bunky has been nothing but a positive aspect to all of our lives. He’s spoken to us weekly as a whole group as coaches at our school.”

Coaching stipends at MDI range from $1,500 to $5,500.

“All of the coaches were very appreciative of the offer,” Dow said. “Many didn’t want to receive their stipends, but I did pay them anyway.”

SCHOOLS PAYING PARTIAL STIPENDS

At Old Orchard Beach, officials struggled to come up with a formula to pay coaches. Originally, they weren’t going to pay any stipends. In the end, the school’s finance committee decided to pay $500 to varsity coaches and $250 to subvarsity and middle school coaches. Coaching stipends in Old Orchard Beach range between $5,500 and $6,100.

Superintendent John Suttie said the committee took into consideration the financial future of the town, which depends heavily on tourism dollars. If tourists don’t come to Old Orchard Beach this summer, there could be a large budget shortfall.

“We’re one of the few towns in Maine where (a lack of tourism) is going to have the largest impact,” said Suttie, a former high school football coach. “The board is just trying to acknowledge that some of the work was done and they’re paying that, while also acknowledging that a lot of people have financial hardships right now. It’s tough on everyone. Now that I’m superintendent, I’ve got to help the board make decisions on what’s best for the community.”

Gray-New Gloucester was another school that initially did not plan to pay coaches this spring. That changed, said Athletic Director Susan Robbins, and now the coaches will receive partial stipends. Varsity head coaches will receive 33 percent, subvarsity and middle school coaches 20 percent.

“Certainly coaches get paid a pittance compared to any other job, but I know the relations coaches have with students,” said Robbins, noting that the stipends average about $4,000 for varsity coaches. “From my personal perspective, coaches should be paid at least something.

“I know the coaches I been working with have put in certainly at least a third of time before stepping on the field. To me, it was a  no-brainer that they earned at least a third of the pay.”

Yarmouth is using the same formula – 33 percent for varsity head coaches and 20 percent for others. Veteran girls’ lacrosse coach Dorothy Holt said the partial stipend is “fine. It really is. I love my players and their families so it’s all good. I support the town’s decision.”

Yarmouth High girls’ lacrosse coach Dorothy Holt, foreground, and assistant coach Jill Thomas pose for a portrait at Holt’s home. The coaches actively engage with their team five days a week, running virtual team meetings and workouts even though there will be no formal practices or games this spring. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

Holt has been meeting online with her players five days a week via Zoom. Some days, the focus is on physical conditioning. Others, it’s more of just a fun, team-oriented virtual get together. Holt said there are 38 girls in the high school program and between 26 and 36 players have participated each day.

“These seniors are all in. They’ve lost a lot, so I think by holding on to this and keeping the team going is helping them emotionally. And physically, the physical part is important,” Holt said. “I would say what we’re doing electronically and virtually is about a hundred times harder, but they’re buying in. They’re loving it.”

At Brunswick, varsity coaches were paid 50 percent of their stipends, while junior varsity coaches were paid 25 percent. The RSU 2 school district, which includes Richmond, Hall-Dale and Monmouth Academy, is also giving half stipends to coaches.

Monmouth Athletic Director Wade Morrill said the payment is compensation for coaches passing up other jobs to work with their athletes.

“(Coaches) signed those contracts, a lot of them have returned those contracts, so they aren’t seeking further employment,” he said. “When you coach, you agree to forgo basically all opportunities that you would otherwise seek for employment to focus your efforts on coaching. That’s something. That commitment is something.”

Like Morrill, Noble’s Aaron Watson sought a full stipend payment. Instead, the administration opted to pay varsity head coaches 50 percent and nothing to anyone else.

“A lot of our coaches are role models, father figures, mother figures, for lack of a better word,” said Watson, who said the average varsity head coach stipend is about $5,000. “And they still interact with (athletes). We asked for compensation and we got some.”

At Biddeford, all coaches are receiving 50 percent of their stipend. Athletic Director Dennis Walton said the school has a coach’s handbook that states what the expectations are of each coach at every level. “If you go through it and they met the expectations, they should be compensated for it,” he said.

Walton said he can see all sides of the issue. “To say you’re paying 100 percent might be a tough pill to swallow in some places,” he said. “To pay a portion is fair. And if we don’t pay them anything, what’s to prevent (the coaches) from saying, ‘I’m not doing anything until Day One and then, on the last day of the season, I’m done.’ Our coaches were very appreciative that their work outside of the season was acknowledged.”

Todd Sampson, the athletic director at Edward Little in Auburn, sought to find a middle ground. His spring coaches will receive 33 percent, while varsity assistants, sub-varsity coaches and middle school coaches will get 20 percent.

“I have a lot of close personal friends in private businesses who have had to lay people off or furlough people,” Sampson said. “It wouldn’t be financially responsible to pay a full stipend. On the other side, I’ve got great coaches. We needed to find a happy medium.”

Press Herald reporter Steve Craig and Central Maine reporters Drew Bonifant, Dave Dyer and Travis Lazarczyk contributed to this story.

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