Athletic Director Foster Speaks to Vanguard

volleyballIn the list of administrative vacancies provided to the Vanguard from Matt Best, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, which also included Emerson and Harper Junior High Principals, the King High Principal and the Davis High Vice Principal, Athletic Director Dennis Foster stood out.

It has barely been a year since he was honored as the Sac-Joaquin area’s top athletic director for 2012-13.  Now he will be leaving his post in June, having completed four years in his post in a position that has had 6 ADs in the last 11 years.

In a letter he stated, “I have realized that I miss coaching too much–my family misses it as well, so I need to do everything in my power to return to the bench once again.”

At the same time, he said, he will probably stay local. “My wife is a special education teacher in the Sacramento area and it’s a really good job. I’m not interested in having her move. But obviously, if something that I can’t turn down comes up, I would return to San Diego, which is where I grew up and I would certainly take the job at my alma mater, which may be available.”

In a lengthy conversation with the Vanguard on Tuesday, Dennis Foster reiterated his desire to get back to coaching, and he said that the last three and a half years have been the longest time he has spent not coaching since he was 17.

In addition, he had the opportunity to be at school with his son for the past four years, but his son graduates this year, which makes a change at this point a bit easier.

In addition to being AD of the Year, he feels he has had a successful four-year run, citing success both on the field and academically.  He pointed to the number of kids moved onto the next level with pride.  He has taken part in a number of signing ceremonies and he is also proud that the softball field has been renovated for the first time in decades.

He said that the AD job was a job that he wanted, he was able to get, but now it is time for him to reach out for the next thing that he wanted.

When he was hired, the district did a two-week search.  He would like to allow the school and community to do a much more extensive search.  He said it is a difficult job, that it is surprisingly time consuming, and that it is going to take the right person to do it.

However, this of course is not the full story.  “The volleyball situation has taken a toll on me,” he told the Vanguard.  “More importantly, it has taken a toll on my finally.”  He said that it is very important to him never to be a burden on his family, which he considers the most important thing in his life.

His biggest concern is the chain of command.  Dennis Foster told the Vanguard that after his first year he created a chain of command that is in the athletic handbook, board approved and in place now for three years.

“It is not respected,” he said.  “(And) it creates the biggest problem.”

He said that, while people give a lot of excuses, if one person has a problem with another, they have to be willing to face the accuser.  “Until we tackle that, we are going to keep running into problems,” he said.

He said it may be hard, but if a player or family has a problem with a coach, they need to hear directly from the person.  “We are not given the opportunity to respond to our critics,” he said.  If a person has a concern with a coach, going somewhere other than that person of concern perpetuates the problem.

He is also frustrated that, along with problems of respecting the chain of command, he believes that the majority of the decisions need to come through the athletic department office.  He said of those above him, none of them have experience in athletics.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be the final call, as by state law and district policy the school board must approve coaches, but that really needs to be a rubber stamp on the process with the legwork and recommendations coming from the AD and the principal at the site level.

He clarified, “I’m not saying that AD needs to be king, but in that position, your expertise and intimate knowledge needs to be used.”

He believes that it hurts the progress of the programs here that what you say is never final.  He said, at the lower-level, if you are a coach and cut a kid, that should be their call.  He said that when you start telling a coach who to keep and who to cut, that sort of micromanagement undermines the coach.  He does not believe that is his job.

Analysis: Athletics Problem Similar to the Rest of the Community

In speaking to Dennis Foster, a lot of things became clear.  The biggest thing he said is that the level of micromanagement, complaining by the parents and meddling by upper administration, is unique to Davis.  He has spent years in Natomas and the climate there is very different.

This is part of the culture in Davis that has to change – coaches need to be allowed to do their job, in his opinion, and in our opinion you could replace “coaches” with teachers and with city employees, across the line.

Parents begin to insert themselves at levels that they should not with the Superintendent, the HR Director or the Board of Education.  This throws the structure off and parents end up putting political pressure on the upper administration, who then imposes decisions on the site level administrators.

Mr. Foster’s discussion of the problems of the chain of command gives us further insight into how the volleyball situation got to whether it is now.

The Nancy Peterson-Julie Crawford struggle began with a dispute between Nancy Peterson and the previous volleyball coach, Leigh Whitmire Choate.  It was Julie Crawford’s friendship and support from Ms. Choate that led to a personality clash that continued to escalate.

As Leigh Choate described, the conflict goes back to days when Ms. Peterson was an assistant volleyball coach.

As Ms. Choate described: ““This started in 2010 when I was the Varsity VB coach at DHS. Nancy was my assistant, Julie was the JV coach and we had another girl coaching the freshman team. Nancy’s friend didn’t like the freshman coach for personal reasons and Nancy asked me to to not have the frosh coach back the following year. I said no. At this point in time Nancy was a very close friend of mine and my family.”

She continued, “The following year I retired from coaching after a very long coaching career and Julie took over the varsity team and the other coach took the JV and a new frosh coach was hired. Nancy had asked Julie to do the same thing she had asked me, don’t hire the now JV coach back and Julie also said no.”

“This just continued to escalate from there as both I and Julie stood up for what we believed to be best for the vb program at DHS and Nancy didn’t agree. Nancy was only an assistant coach with me for one year. Nancy didn’t want to coach , she just wanted to have a say in who did,” she said.  “IMO it was not Nancy’s goal to coach, I think it was an effort to get close to the program so that she could try and control how things were done within the program.”

As we now know, when Nancy Peterson ran for school board, even her supporters warned her that she should avoid the volleyball program, but she could not.

What becomes clear here is that the chain of command was not respected.  The decisions on whether to hire and fire coaches should have been made by the athletic director and it became clear that, between HR Director Matt Best and Superintendent Winfred Roberson, that chain of command was not respected.

It was Mr. Roberson who acknowledged pulling the VSA last July.

It is also clear that the chain of command issues did not start with Nancy Peterson.  It was Winfred Roberson who made the decision to fire Coach Christian and it was left to Athletic Director Dennis Foster to coach the basketball team for the rest of the year following that debacle.

Dennis Foster clearly believes that the coaches need to be allowed to pick which players are on their team, which player can get cut, and he disagrees with the idea that every senior who wants to participate should be allowed to be on the team.

What he sees as the ultimate problem here is a structure that allows parents to complain about things like playing time and other things that are in the purview of coaches to district administration and board members.

School board members have told the Vanguard that they frequently receive complaints from parents about playing time.  The appropriate response from a board member, Superintendent, or HR Director should be to talk with the coach or, better yet, allow the students to handle these issues on their own.

We live in a culture where the second guessing of coaches is an industry-wide problem; it starts at the national media level on down.

On the other hand, what employee could survive a parent or board member following them around every practice and every game with a notepad that illustrated their mistakes in strategy or otherwise?

Unfortunately, the more I talked with Dennis Foster, the more I realized that this problem is really far bigger than athletics.  I heard the same complaints from him that I do from city employees, city councilmembers, school board members and teachers.

We need to decide as a community what kind of community we want and we need to start trusting the people we hire to do their jobs.  It is one thing to scrutinize policy level decisions made by elected officials, it is another to micromanage site level decisions, whether they are made by coaches, teachers, or other low level employees.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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14 Comments

  1. Don Shor

    This illustrates a point I’ve been making on previous threads. Dennis Foster is describing problems with policy and administration, and is doing so in a frank manner that wouldn’t likely happen unless he was leaving.
    The board is not going to get these assessments from conversations that they have with coaches, faculty, and staff.
    The Superintendent is not going to get this kind of honest feedback about his performance and that of his administration.
    The only way you get this kind of feedback is by a third party, charged with the job of writing a report, making policy recommendations and establishing how administration erred and can implement changes.
    It isn’t a matter of ‘giving them time’ to make things better. You simply won’t get the communication you need if the job is overseen by the current Board, or the current administration.
    They need outside help.
    Unless, of course, you think the problem is solved and everyone can just move on.

    1. wdf1

      Don Shor: Dennis Foster is describing problems with policy and administration, and is doing so in a frank manner that wouldn’t likely happen unless he was leaving.

      But I don’t think Dennis Foster said anything that others following the situation somewhat closely wouldn’t have also concluded:

      His biggest concern is the chain of command. Dennis Foster told the Vanguard that after his first year he created a chain of command that is in the athletic handbook, board approved and in place now for three years.
      “It is not respected,” he said. “(And) it creates the biggest problem.”

      He said that while people give a lot of excuses, if one person has a problem with another, they have to be willing to face the accuser. “Until we tackle that, we are going to keep running into problems,” he said.

      He said it may be hard, but if a player or family has a problem with a coach, they need to hear directly from the person. “We are not given the opportunity to respond to our critics,” he said. If a person has a concern with a coach, going somewhere other than that person of concern perpetuates the problem.

      He is also frustrated that along with problems of respecting the chain of command, he believes that the majority of the decisions need to come through the athletic department office. He said that those above him, none of them have experience in athletics.

      I think some school board members probably also recognize this. I think there would be some pushback to hire an outside consultant to conclude what many others already recognize.

      But to build on Foster’s statements, what makes Davis a little different from other districts is the extent of parent involvement as a volunteer and fundraising force in the district. With that parents grow to feel more ownership of the district, sometimes to a point that is detrimental. When parent volunteers are doing the districtwide fundraising for DSF, campaigning for parcel taxes (including for the salary of the Athletic Director and coaches’ stipends), fundraising for high school stadiums, doing increased fundraising at the site level because the district has pulled funds away, naturally parents are going to feel like they want a say in what programs are going to run, and maybe how they are run. In some ways, that sense of ownership can be a good thing, though clearly there are excesses.

  2. Jim Frame

    The only way you get this kind of feedback is by a third party, charged with the job of writing a report, making policy recommendations and establishing how administration erred and can implement changes.

    I hope to heck they don’t hire the law firm that did the Crawford investigation to write that report. We’d need to pass another school tax first…

  3. Dave Hart

    Maybe the Board has already done so, but I would suggest something like the following that is probably over-simplified but communicates that the chain of command cannot be circumvented.

    1. Limitation in the Superintendent’s authority to approve legal expenses for the express purpose of complaint (not criminal) investigations to $4,000 without Board approval.

    2. An expressed delegation of authority from the Superintendent to the DHS AD to be the one and only person to handle parental complaints. The AD job description should include a requirement to log all complaints and provide a written response within 30 days to the complainant once the AD has made a decision in concert with the coach in question. Copies go to the coach, principal and Superintendent. Smart ADs will review their response with all three before finalizing.

    3. Print cards for the Superintendent, DJUSD Board members, Principals that they can pull out of their wallet at the appropriate time that say “Thank you Mr./Ms. ____, for sharing your thoughts. I am sorry I can’t help you at this time. I’m not allowed, by DJUSD policy to discuss any complaint regarding athletic programs. You will have to work directly with the AD to resolve your complaint. You have the right to appeal any written decision by the AD to the DJUSD Board within 30 days of the AD’s decision.” Repeat if necessary.

    4. The Superintendent, Principal and all district administrators probably get together at the beginning of each school year. They should all stand up and read the card out loud in unison so there is no doubt about how complaints are to be handled.

  4. Barack Palin

    David, where’s the report about the costs of other investigations conducted by the school district? I thought you were supposed to get them by last Thursday after a two week delay? Do you have the report or is the school district stonewalling you?

      1. Barack Palin

        Thanks, the site seems to be working good today. I’d like to post a pic to my profile but can’t get it to download. Any tips?

        Do you think the district is trying to keep the info from you?

  5. TrueBlueDevil

    Site looks to be working well. I had to re-establish my identity due to technical issues.

    The AD spelled out what many had guessed. So if Nancy Peterson decides to “jump the shark”, who tells her No? The Principal has to tell her to go to the coach or AD; the HR Manager has to do the same; as does the Superintendent. There has to be a way to stop this micromanaging and influence peddling.

    Now, how many times was it Peterson, and how many times was it other parents?

    It will also be interesting to see, when the information regarding Complaints and Investigations comes out in 10 days or so (DJUSD asked for a 15-day extension), will they tell us how many formal Complaints the Peterson’s filed?

    1. Barack Palin

      “It will also be interesting to see, when the information regarding Complaints and Investigations comes out in 10 days or so (DJUSD asked for a 15-day extension), will they tell us how many formal Complaints the Peterson’s filed?”

      They had asked for a 14 day extension earlier which would’ve been up as of last Thursday if I’m not mistaken. Why is this info so hard to attain?

        1. David Greenwald

          No worries. One thing I will say – and this is by no means an excuse for how long it has taken – but the district does have to have their attorneys look over the request and response and redact information that would be privileged.

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