North Salem, N.Y. - Dozens of former educators and athletes traveled from all over the state to the North Salem Board of Education meeting July 1 to speak in support of Henry Sassone, who was removed from his position as athletic director and varsity boys basketball coach after more than three decades.
The board, at its annual reorganization meeting on July 1, did not re-appoint Sassone as boys varsity basketball coach or Eric Buzzetto as varsity girls basketball coach. It’s unclear what will happen without coaches when in a few weeks summer training typically begins for these sports.
Amanda Heyde, a full-time physical education teacher who had been with the district for two years and coaches three sports, will also not be returning next year.
Heyde said in a phone call she was told she wasn’t being brought back because of low enrollment.
The board appointed coaches for many of the district’s other sports as part of its consent agenda during the meeting.
Buzzetto said he received an email shortly after 8 a.m. Monday from High School Principal Vince DiGrandi that his appointment would be pulled from that agenda.
A few hours later, Buzzetto wrote back that he was resigning as the coach.
"I just feel at this point North Salem athletics is going in a direction that I don't want to be a part of," Buzzetto wrote to DiGrandi.
Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Freeston referred all questions about the appointment to the district’s legal counsel, Hilary Moreira of Bond, Schoeneck and King.
In an email at 11 a.m. on Monday, July 1, Moreira said the district is “formalizing the position of the director of physical education” and regulations dictate that whoever holds that position must have both a Physical Education Certification and an Administrative Certification.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Sassone does not hold the required Administrative Certification to be appointed as the Director of Physical Education and therefore he will revert back to his full-time physical education teaching duties,” Moreira said. “As to the district's decision not to reappoint Mr. Sassone as the Head Basketball Coach for the 2019-2020 school year, the district respects the confidentiality of personnel matters and therefore will not comment further.”
The public comment portion of the meeting lasted more than 40 minutes, with many speaking about Sassone’s legacy on and off the court.
Sassone has been the athletic director for 31 years and boys basketball coach for 34 in the district. In 2017, he had his 400th career victory and was inducted into the New York Basketball Hall of Fame.
The veteran coach read a statement in the hallway outside the school board meeting, thanking his former players and colleagues for showing their support.
“My goal is to continue as the department chair and the athletic director here in North Salem,” Sassone said. “I will look forward to serving this district in any capacity this administration decides.”
At the June 26 school board meeting, Freeston announced that Sassone would be a physical education teacher for the 2019-20 school year and a few days later the district posted a job ad for an interim director of athletics and K-12 physical education.
“For those guys who have come out today to support, you will live in my heart forever,” Sassone said.
Michael Minzloff, speaking on behalf of the North Salem Teachers Association, said the district “acted in poor faith” by delaying personnel decisions that had a “major impact on some of our teachers.”
“It seems callous to take such an approach when you are dealing with people’s livelihoods,” Minzloff said. “The teachers have to question the nature of our relationship with the administration and how much we are valued.”
Alumnus Marc Miller called out DiGrandi, who had tweeted last year that Sassone was a “class act” and one of the “hardest working” coaches after his induction into the New York Basketball Hall of Fame.
DiGrandi has since deleted the tweet.
“Everyone in this room knows that Coach Sassone’s impact is strongest off the court,” Miller said. “Coach Sassone’s lessons of hard work, discipline, perseverance, personal responsibility and respect for others … prepare us for the real world.”
Miller called him “the best man outside my family” that he knows.
Bill Dahl, a former teacher and former teacher’s union president, asked the board to undo the “mistake” of not appointing Sassone.
“Henry has never been an easy guy to work with, we all know that, but he’s not easy because he’s committed to excellence and demands excellence,” Dahl said. “Maybe our society has lost the values that made this country great.”
Anthony Nicodemo, who is president of the Lower Hudson Basketball Coaches Association, where Sassone is vice president, questioned the district’s motives in not keeping Sassone and again mentioned DiGrandi’s tweet praising Sassone.
“Why would you look to get rid of someone you feel so great about?” Nicodemo said. Then, to the board, “Why would the board take the word of a second-year principal over a man with a 34-year history and an impeccable record?”
Alumnus Mark DePaoli said he felt “disappointed” in the district’s action.
And without the district giving a reason for Sassone’s removal, speculated whether there was “ulterior motives.”
“He stood for core values of integrity, about teaching kids that you get what you earn, not what you want, about being humble, being a great teammate, about being unselfish, about doing the right thing,” DePaoli said. “If those core values make him old school then I don’t know what we’re trying to do for the future generations of the North Salem School District. To remove Henry Sassone from the North Salem School District, either you don’t understand everything he’s done for this district or there’s ulterior motives.”
John Lauro, a former district employee who worked with Sassone for 21 years, said he watched the physical education and athletics grow and become successful under Sassone.
“What you’re doing is not right,” Lauro said.
Dan DePaoli, another former North Salem athlete, called the move “petty and personal.”
“His legacy will never be tarnished and yours will never be repaired,” he told the board. “Do the right thing, not only because he deserves it, but because the entire community deserves it.”
Neil Broderick, a former North Salem athletic director, said he watched as Sassone guided hundreds of players over the years to become better men.
“I know every one of these young men who have come up here and they are quality human beings, but some of them were on the wrong path and Henry had as much an effect on straightening them out, guiding them and mentoring them, counseling them as anyone else,” Broderick said. “Yes, there were parents who didn’t like Henry’s decisions because he had an anchor in integrity … maybe that’s where some of this unacceptable decision has come from. Maybe Henry’s pissed off the wrong parent. You dismiss him, you’re doing the community wrong.”
Two speakers asked for more transparency from the district.
“I want an accounting of what went on here and why we are making this decision,” said alumnus Greg Vassek. “This doesn’t sit right with me and a lot of other folks who are taxpayers in this community.”
Sassone’s daughter, Melissa, who is also employed by the district, commended her father for his work through the years.
“The force behind the athletic department and the North Salem tiger is Henry Sassone,” Melissa Sassone said.