An outpouring of support by about three dozen parents and players Monday night could not save the jobs of two coaches in one of Western New York's most successful high school baseball programs.
Cheektowaga Central School Board members said state and local guidelines gave them little choice but to replace varsity baseball coach Jerry Slawek and junior varsity coach Ray Jablonski, neither of whom is a teacher, with two teachers who applied for the coaching posts.
Out of office for barely three weeks, former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski was among those who packed the School Board's small meeting room to plead that the two popular baseball coaches be reappointed.
Parents noted that Slawek's varsity team has gone to the Section VI finals five times in the last six years, winning four times, including the last three years.
"I can't believe they would do this to the one program they have that wins," Slawek remarked as he paced the hall, waiting for the board's decision.
But trustee Richard D. Jachimiak, speaking for the majority, explained that guidelines from the state education commissioner, applied to the local teacher contract, dictate that when a qualified teacher and nonteacher are up for the same job, the nod goes to the teacher.
Nonteachers are hired only if no certified physical-education teacher or teacher with coaching experience applies, Jachimiak told the audience.
Diane Panasiewicz was the only trustee to vote against the coaching change. School Board President Raymond L. Carr abstained.
Slawek, 47, who works for the state, has been the school's baseball coach for the last six years. Parents called him one of the most knowledgeable and respected authorities on interscholastic baseball in this area.
Jablonski, 41, who runs a construction business, played professionally in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, including a stint with the Buffalo Bisons at old War Memorial Stadium. He has been Cheektowaga's junior varsity baseball coach for the last two years.
Slawek's replacement is Dan Kaplan, in his first year at Cheektowaga Central. Officials said Kaplan has some experience
coaching baseball at Williamsville South High School. Dave Ryan, who takes over for Jablonski, is a physical-education teacher at Cheektowaga Central's Union East Elementary School.
Both were deemed qualified for the coaching positions, officials said.
But several parents who spoke during the meeting said that their sons have spent their baseball lives with Slawek and that a coaching change in their senior year is bound to affect their development and how college recruiters will evaluate them.
Speaker after speaker urged board members to use their discretionary authority and keep the two coaches. Both coach to win, but not at the expense of character-building, parents told the board.
Gorski, whose sons Joseph, 17, and Jonathan, 14, play baseball at Cheektowaga Central, described the district's baseball program as "almost deplorable" before Slawek and Jablonski arrived. "It's nice to win between the white lines, but more important are the qualities and values they instill in these young men," Gorski said.
Another parent, Don Staszczyk, said he recently moved the family back to Cheektowaga from Pennsylvania just so his sons could play for Slawek. "From what I've heard about this guy, you guys would have to be crazy to lose him," Staszczyk told the board.
Another man said Slawek "taught 'em self-esteem and pride, he taught 'em how to win, but he also taught 'em how to lose. The true test is not just are you a better player at the end of the year, but are you a better individual?"
Others said some players are talking about not playing this year if the coaches do not return. Six or seven seniors "have been with Mr. Slawek since T-ball, when sometimes we practiced in the snow," said Jon Lewandowski, a senior on the team. "Without these (coaches), I don't think we'll be as motivated to play."
"We don't want the program to die, but some kids are talking about not playing," Jablonski said outside the board room. "A lot of parents are wondering: Are we here to line our teachers' pockets, or are we here for our kids?"
The varsity and junior varsity coaching jobs carry annual stipends of $2,938 and $2,726, respectively.
Jachimiak said the district owes Slawek and Jablonski "a debt of gratitude," but given the state education commissioner's guidelines in teacher/nonteacher situations such as this, "I think this is the right way, the only way we can vote."