Joseph Cipp Jr. resigns after Bellport HS grade-fixing charges

A file photo of South Country district superintendent

A file photo of South Country district superintendent Joseph L. Cipp, Jr. (March 14, 2012) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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Joseph Cipp Jr., Suffolk County's winningest football coach during an athletic career spanning more than three decades, resigned as South Country Central School District superintendent Wednesday night over an alleged grade-fixing scandal involving a former player.

In a 5-3 vote, the board decided to accept Cipp's resignation. He will be replaced May 2 by Howard Koenig, former superintendent of the Central Islip School District, who will serve in an interim role.

Cipp, 63, who has remained stoic for months as critics have demanded his firing, was not at Wednesday night's meeting, but said in a statement, "As we move into critical months for testing with our students, I feel as a leader, I must take the appropriate action to put the focus back on our students and academics."

The meeting, attended by about 300 people, was marked by a confrontation between a board member and Cipp's son, Joseph Cipp III, 42, who is head football coach at Bellport High School and was escorted from the auditorium.

Under terms of his departure, the board will pay Cipp his $272,640-a-year salary through May 2, 2014, in a lump sum of $545,280. The deal ends 14 months before his contract's expiration. Board president Victor Correa said the board agreed to the deal because the cost of litigation to force him out would have been greater than $1 million.

The controversy stemmed from accusations made last year by fired Bellport High principal Kevin O'Connell, who said Cipp pressured employees to change Ryan Sloan's grades so the football star could qualify for an NCAA scholarship, which he received from Syracuse University, where he is now a freshman.

The superintendent has repeatedly said he never changed any student's grade or asked anyone else to do so.

Cipp's son said his father was the victim of a witch hunt fueled by personal vendettas.

"He's an upright man with old-school values," he said, adding that he sat out many players -- including Sloan -- for academic and other infractions. "He's done that not to make them better players, but better men."

He grew angry when a board member openly challenged his father's integrity and he shouted from the aisle. Correa asked him to be seated, but Cipp refused. Cipp was escorted from the auditorium by security officers at Correa's request.

“They tell me to sit down,” he said. “I’m not going to sit down.”

Before Wednesday night’s meeting, school board member Owen Durney called the situation “a nightmare for everybody” and said it had been difficult to reach a resolution. Money was a key factor, he said.

“It all boils down to what we can afford to do and what we can’t afford to do,” school board member Owen Durney said. “And with the tax cap looming over us, that adds to the complicated nature of what we are dealing with.”

Cipp Jr., who launched the high school's football program in 1976 and guided the Clippers to 17 championships, was earning a yearly pension of about $104,000 after retiring, a source in the district said. Soon after, the district hired him as superintendent.

Though Cipp had to pay back the pension he had collected, his contract as superintendent stipulated that if he stayed in the post for five years, he would collect a pension of up to 80 percent of his superintendent's salary, the source said. Under Wednesday night's deal, he won't reach that threshold.

The board initially was going to vote without explaining to the public what the vote was about but the crowd shouted for them to disclose the subject. When the board voted, there was both applause and boos from the audience.

Sloan and his guardians have said he worked hard to improve his grades on his own. But an independent probe conducted by Melville attorney Bronwyn Black -- hired by the school board to investigate the allegations -- found Sloan's grades were changed "at the direction of the administration."

Black's preliminary report was leaked to the media in February. She said Sloan's 2010 geometry, algebra, physical education and health grades were boosted.

In that report, Black said Cipp "created an atmosphere of pressure . . . to make sure Ryan Sloan got the NCAA scholarship.

“As the superintendent, he certainly should have known what was going on and if he was not involved, he should have taken every step to prevent the actions that were taken,” she wrote.

The controversy, which became public in December, split the school board, with three members calling last month for the resignations of the board president and vice president and the suspension of any employee found to have played any role in the alleged grade-changing.

Earlier this month, school board members received Black's final report, but it has not been released. Black has not returned calls.

Parent Chrisanne Schwartz was not pleased with the vote. "He is a man that has done so much for the community," she said.  “I just don’t like public executions.”

East Patchogue resident Joe Farber, whose two adult children attended the district, agreed with the settlement. "He should have lost the job," he said. "He didn't tell the truth. We're just ignoring that."

Student Michael Savino, 18, a Bellport High School senior, said Cipp had been his football coach and Sloan is a friend. He said he agreed with the board's decision."It was fair, but they let him know that they're strict here."

Durney said he hopes the district and the community can move past the issue and that voters don't turn down the upcoming budget because of the controversy.

"One of my biggest concerns is that the budget is going to suffer because of this -- that people will misdirect their anger about this situation and take it out at the budget," he said.

Cipp's legacy in the district has concrete markers. The football team plays at Joe Cipp Field, and his two sons both have been leaders of the Clippers, with Joe Cipp III the current head coach.

Many of Cipp's former players credit him as a strong presence in their lives."I wouldn't be who and where I am today without Bellport football," said Mike Burton, a wide receiver/linebacker in the class of 2011 who earned a Division II football scholarship to LIU Post. "I moved here from Georgia ... and got into quite a bit of trouble. Coach Cipp took me aside and helped me straighten things out. He's a father figure to so many guys."

Sloan referred to Cipp in his college essay. "He has taught me to never give up and have hope when things don't go my way," he wrote.

With Bob Herzog

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