SHRUB OAK, N.Y. – Lakeland Schools will look into hiring an assistant athletic director—at $125,000 per year—but it will not have the unanimous support of its Board of Education.

One dissenting school board trustee, Glen Malia, sparked a discussion on the importance of sports when he voiced his concern about their funding.

“I sometimes feel that our focus is misdirected in this district,” Malia said. “That we don’t put the focus on education; that we put the focus sometimes on sports.”

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Moments earlier, Dr. George Stone, superintendent of schools, had argued just the opposite. In a presentation, Stone had said the district’s athletic director, Dan Belfi, has too many responsibilities and is overworked.

“He puts in many, many, many 12-hour days,” Stone said of Belfi. “I would venture to say he probably works more hours than practically any single district employee.”

Stone came to the Aug. 15 meeting prepared, armed with two pages’ worth of duties that Belfi performs. Among them: overseeing transportation, scheduling, equipment, and grounds; handling eligibility issues; evaluating coaches and teachers; developing health and physical education curriculum; developing and managing a budget; and hiring new coaches.

“There are so many things that have to be done,” Stone said.

The new hire would assist Belfi in most of these duties but would assume responsibility for grant writing and developing curriculum.

“In my current structure, with running two Class A schools (Lakeland and Walter Panas), it’s essentially as if we’re running Hendrick Hudson and Yorktown at the same time,” Belfi said. “Unfortunately, I feel like our physical education teachers and our health teachers kind of get put on the back burner at times.”

He added, “To have another full-time body working on the ground with us is only going to be better for the students.”

But Malia, himself a Division 1 track and field athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, wasn’t convinced.

“Nobody has to tell me how important sports [are],” Malia said. “But we’re talking about: Do we need to spend taxpayer money to bring another person to help Mr. Belfi to do the job that he was hired to do several years back? That’s the big question.”

To further his point, Malia asked Stone whether the arts, English, math or science departments had dedicated directors, as Belfi is for sports.

“We renovated our auditoriums, we’ve added music studios, we’ve added guitar rooms,” Stone answered. “We are not shortchanging anybody on our end.”

Stone was backed up by several other board members, who said sports are more popular now than ever before.

“When you look at [Belfi’s] responsibilities, I think that some extra help is warranted,” said Rachelle Nardelli, school board trustee. “And whether you like it not, we are a sports-driven society.”

Between Lakeland, Walter Panas and Copper Beech Middle School, the district offered 56 fall, winter and spring sports in 2018-19. There were 1,757 players on the 85 teams, according to information provided by Belfi. Many students play more than one sport.

Others argued that a strong athletic program benefits the district by attracting new residents. But school board Trustee Becky Burfeind said it goes beyond that.

“You can’t discount the reality that so many students receive money toward scholarships for excelling in sports,” Burfeind said. “I just think that the athletic program is very important. If we have somebody running it who’s doing a good job, we don’t want to run the risk of wearing them down.”

Whether it’s the arts, science or sports, school board President Michael Daly said it’s important to support Lakeland’s extracurricular activities.

“With everything going on across the country right now, we need to keep our children, our young adults, positively motivated and actively involved and make sure they have role models,” Daly said.

“It’s an important job,” he continued. “Let’s not do it halfway. I’m not a big fan of spending money but at times you have to open the pocketbook. And this is one of those times.”

After the lively discussion, board members agreed to post for the position.

Financially, Binoy Alunkal, the district’s business manager, said better-than-expected sales tax revenue should allow Lakeland to fund another full-time administrative position. Westchester County’s sales tax jumped last month from 7.375 percent to 8.375 percent. Alunkal said Lakeland should get about $800,000 more annually.