By Christy Kanaby, NJEA staff
In the world of sports, teams work together with a common goal: to emerge victorious. Every coach knows that the winningest teams are the ones who follow the rules, fight fair and never give up. And, as Belvidere educators and coaches Daniel Dempsey and Andrew Poyer will tell you, they achieved victory because they had a dedicated NJEA and Belvidere Education Association (BEA) team on their side.
In the fall of 2018, Dempsey and Poyer, the Belvidere School District’s head and volunteer assistant boys’ soccer coaches, respectively, were accused of stealing monies from a fundraiser that had been earmarked for the soccer team with the approval of the booster club. Like other district coaches before them, they used SnapRaise—an online fundraising system—to generate funds for team needs and eventually raised over $6,500, which was provided to the team’s booster club for it to determine how it would be used.
In addition to the various team-based items the booster club voted to fund with the monies raised, the booster club decided to present Poyer with a check in appreciation for his dedication as a volunteer coach. Upon learning this, Belvidere Superintendent Christopher Carrubba accused the coaches of failing to gain district approval to hold the fundraiser—which the district athletic director disputed—and of using the money solely to provide Poyer a stipend for the volunteer position.
Believing the booster club didn’t have its own tax identification numbers, Dempsey gave the check to district officials, following long-standing district procedures, and the monies were mistakenly placed into boys’ soccer student account instead of provided to the booster club. Despite multiple requests from the booster club to the Business Administrator Rochelle Tjalma to transfer the money, the money was never transferred, and remains unreturned to the booster club to this day.
Amid the chaos—and without regard for the booster club’s emphatic testimony that they alone made the decision to gift Poyer—Dempsey and Poyer were suspended in December 2018, prohibited from school property, and eventually served with tenure charges on Feb. 22, 2019, with the Belvidere Board of Education voting to move forward with the charges the following month.
“My initial reaction was that of shock, which was compounded by the fact that I was not allowed to tell my story,” said Dempsey. “Instead, the district allowed rumors and slanderous comments to run rampant, and our characters were dragged through the mud.”
No one would have blamed either coach if they chose to walk away. Being accused of theft and deception had taken its toll, and both knew they’d remain suspended without pay as the case made its way through the legal process. However, as veteran district educators and award-winning coaches, Dempsey and Poyer saw this as an opportunity to take a stand.
Throughout the ordeal, they both worked closely with BEA President Judy Black and their NJEA UniServ field representative, Kim Cowing, who began to create a team of experts to assist. Cowing immediately brought in her colleague, NJEA UniServ Field Representative John Ropars, who has extensive experience in arbitrating cases.
“it was clear to us that Dan and Andy were not guilty of the charges brought against them by the board,” said Cowing. “From the beginning and throughout our investigations, we could not understand why the board was continuing to pursue tenure charges,. The interviews, documents and testimonies that we gathered in preparation for the arbitration all pointed toward the vindication of both members.”
The story soon spread throughout the district, and the soccer parents stood up for the men, furiously expressing their outrage at the board’s action to the athletic director, the superintendent and—eventually—the board. As the weeks went by, it became clear that the administration and the board chose to ignore the pleas of the booster club leaders, most notably that it was the club’s clear declaration that they and they alone decided to gift Poyer for his time with the team—a practice that is also done for volunteer coaches in other district sports.
“I was in disbelief when I learned that the Booster Club parents were ignored,” said Poyer. “This situation could have been cleared up well before the prosecutor’s office was involved, along with the tenure charges that were later issued, if the school district just took the time to show a little respect and listen.”
Through the work of NJEA network attorney, Sanford Oxfeld, Esq., the case went before an arbitrator in November 2019. In his arguments, Oxfeld maintained that none of the district’s investigation into the matter was conducted objectively, and without prejudice.
“To be clear, neither Dan nor Andy had done anything wrong whatsoever,” Oxfeld declared. “Yet, as emphasized by the Booster Club leaders, their names and reputations were being defamed throughout the community.”
Despite this, Dempsey and Poyer staunchly believed that justice would prevail, and their patience was rewarded in January. The arbitrator assigned to their tenure case dismissed the charges and reinstated the employees, making them whole for all lost wages and benefits.
“We were all extremely pleased with the award; it’s always great to see the good guys win,” said Cowing. “Both Dan and Andy had their lives turned upside down. They didn’t deserve this treatment, but they did deserve to get their jobs back.”
“While it is always gratifying to win a significant case, it was even more so in this matter,” Oxfeld added. “That the charges were premised on arguably fraudulent allegations against them also made this victory even sweeter.”
The Belvidere School District did not see it that way, and it kept the men suspended—with full pay—as the district considered appealing the decision. Ultimately, the board decided not to pursue it as no possible basis for an appeal existed for an appeal, and Dempsey and Poyer returned to their classrooms in February.
“Since we were gone for over a year, the return to work was not simple,” said Dempsey. “We were concerned about how we would be perceived. To our amazement, we were greeted by a standing ovation in the auditorium and a celebration with our peers in the faculty room.”
“It was nice to know that the staff was happy to have us back, and that they were supportive of Dan and me,” Poyer stated. “It helped ease our transition back to work.”