Dozens of parents and players grilled the Comsewogue school board for more than half an hour Monday night regarding its decision to not re-appoint a popular volunteer assistant varsity lacrosse coach for the coming lacrosse season.
Superintendent Joseph Rella said he made the decision in October to not re-appoint the coach, Mike Gongas, based on a number of incidents that allegedly took place over the span of several years during his involvement with an outside lacrosse league not affiliated with the school district. The school board upheld Rella's decision.
"There’s been too many instances," school board president John Swenning said on Monday. "We’re not saying Mike’s done things wrong, but things have happened with Mike involved. It’s our opinion that it is in the best interest [of] our kids and our community that he’s not on the field with them."
The alleged incident that Swenning called "the straw that broke the camel's back" – a supposed physical altercation at a Team Long Island lacrosse event – happened Oct. 21.
It was not an official Comsewogue school event, "but our students were there," Rella said. "Coaches that coach these sports here never have physical altercations. We just can’t have it."
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Gongas said he felt the board's statements against him on Monday night were slanderous.
"I’m just very curious as to why they feel they would have to publicly humiliate me and make false accusations at a board meeting when there was nothing to act on or anything to vote on," said Gongas, a former board of education trustee. "You’re not supposed to discuss personnel issues publicly. It’s supposed to be discussed in executive session."
Gongas added that he never convicted of any crimes, and investigations by other parties into the incident referenced by the board showed he was not at fault.
John Donnelly, a parent, asked the school board on Monday night to reconsider one more time.
"Taken as a whole body of work, Mike has done a great job. ... His heart is in the right place," Donnelly said. "That’s what we’re here trying to appeal for. If there’s any way to do it formally, we’d like to know. Will you give us the opportunity?"
But Swenning, Rella and board vice president Lance Brown said the chance for an appeal had already been given.
"He has done a tremendous amount of work for this district and we truly appreciate that," Brown said. "... This is extremely difficult for all of us to do. We have to consider the safety of our children, paramount. Period."
But while Gongas is upset he has been denied the chance to do what he loves – serve as a volunteer coach in the school district – he at least finds one small comfort in this: "It feels great that the people that I spend my time with on a daily basis and the people whose lives I tried to touch and direct in their path in life all feel as they do about me," he said. "I’ve gotten over 225 emails from people that are telling me, 'Don’t lose faith, what you’re doing for our kids is great.' It makes my heart feel good at least that the people I touch on a daily basis appreciate what I do."