Proviso East High School has a new varsity football coach — a teacher who, although highly qualified for the position, was not the candidate many community members had in mind for the job.
During a regular meeting on Feb. 13, the Proviso Township High Schools District 209 school board voted unanimously to approve the hiring of Oliver Speller as the school’s third head football coach in five years — a decision board members made begrudgingly. Board member Sam Valtiarrez abstained.
Speller will replace Dewan White, Sr., whose contract the district decided not to renew after White’s second winless season last year.
The board’s overall reluctance to appoint Speller, many members said, was largely due to the fact that the other top candidate for the position — sophomore football coach Scottie Ware — came so highly recommended by many community members, some of whom questioned the district’s hiring process.
Board members said that they were nonetheless bound by a rule in the teacher’s contract stipulating that when choosing between candidates with roughly equal qualifications for the job, the district should give the coaching contract to the teacher. The head varsity football coach gets an annual stipend of roughly $8,000.
“In the event there are two equal candidates and we can’t make a decision, we have to give preference to the teacher,” said D209 member Amanda Grant. “Legally, that is written in stone.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Speller has taught biology for over 15 years and was head football coach at Westinghouse High School in Chicago from 2000 to 2005. In 2004, the latest year for which a record can be found on MaxPreps, the high school sports website, Westinghouse was 4-3.
And as head football coach at Rich Central High School in Olympia Fields, Speller compiled a total record of 15-21 from 2007 until 2010, according to MaxPreps.
Scottie Ware, who had compiled a winning record last season as head coach at the freshman and sophomore level, was also an assistant coach under White.
“I think I attended every Proviso East football game this past year and at every game, all I heard was, ‘Scottie Ware, Scottie Ware,'” said board member Ned Wagner during the Feb. 13 meeting, where he referenced the sophomore team’s 7-2 record during the 2016 season. “It felt like something was happening, that the football program was coming back. I’m puzzled.”
At least six people spoke in support of Ware’s hiring during the meeting, including Edward Alexander — the president of the Maywood BUCS athletic organization, which includes a football program that has operated in Maywood for roughly three decades. Last year, the program did not field a team due to low enrollment.
“Scottie has been instrumental in working with our program,” Alexander said. “If there was a process that was utilized to evaluate and bring on a coach … how do you do that with a guy we don’t know, the kids don’t know him, we’ve never seen him. Unless we build a relationship [from the ground-up] with the youth program, we will never succeed at the upper level.”
Other people speaking in support of Ware during the meeting said that, in addition to his credentials, Ware’s candidacy is also distinguished due to his upbringing in Maywood.
“Our Maywood young men need to have a Maywood coach,” one man said.
Dr. Kim Echols, D209’s assistant superintendent for human resources and technology, said that that approximately 30 candidates applied for the head coaching position — 22 of whom came from outside of the district.
She said that the process was facilitated by Dr. Brian Colbert, East’s athletic director and assistant principal, and included a committee comprising parents, community members, coaches, faculty and students.
Echols said that the district was looking for candidates’ prior football experience, both as players and coaches; their defensive and offensive philosophies; and their academic plans for students, among other criteria.
“The pool was narrowed to 12 candidates — four internal and 8 external,” Echols said, adding that three finalists were interviewed by Dr. Patrick Hardy, Proviso East’s principal. Echols said that Spellers was “was clearly the front-runner.”
“This was a fair and clean process,” Echols said.
Board members had initially considered tabling the motion to vote on Spellers’ hire, but eventually backed off of that notion.
Some members said a further review of the process would be pointless considering the district would still be unable to get around the contractual obligation; moreover, they added, more time would be lost for a headless football team that soon will need to start training and conditioning ahead of a new season.
“At the end of the day, the union’s contract will prevail,” said D209 board member Della Patterson, who added that she was part of the negotiating team that approved a new teacher’s contract last year.
Board members and district administrators still wanted to make sure that they did not appear to be dismissing the public’s concerns.
“It’s not that we don’t hear the community, it’s just that this was a negotiated contract with the union,” said D209 board member Claudia Medina.
“Staying true to contracts is something that we embrace and want to do,” said D209 superintendent Dr. Jesse Rodriguez. “We also have the public that came forward and shared concerns, which is important to us. It’s important that we respond to them and listen to their concerns.”
District 209 board President Theresa Kelly said that the most the public can do at this point is pressure the union to remove that clause from the teachers’ contract, so that a similar conflict doesn’t happen in the future.
“This shows that you’re going to need to come out and get that clause out of the contract,” Kelly said.
Ultimately though, the district’s problem is a good one to have, said Rodriguez, who, like many board members, added that he is a fan of both Speller and Ware.
“We are in a very good situation,” the superintendent said. “We have two excellent candidates for this opportunity. I’m at a crossroads, because the administration did its due diligence, but we owe it to the public to listen to them … We also have our labor unions.”
Board member Rodney Alexander said that the situation was a “dilemma of the system” that community members must educate themselves on.
“We can’t get the coach who is invested, who the people want, because we are bound by a contract,” Alexander says. “These are processes that we as a board have to go by. It’s not that we did not hear you. We have systems.”
In the meantime, Alexander recommended that the public give Speller a chance.
“I challenge you to get behind this coach, support this coach,” he said. “Because whether we do or not, it’s going to impact our community and our school.”