By MADDY VITALE
She’s a local legend. She’s a girls basketball coach who had a storied career playing college ball to advance to the NCAA Final Four in 1982. Stephanie Gaitley went on to teach other players skills on the court to win championships at top colleges.
And now, after 11 seasons coaching Fordham University’s women’s basketball team, she is coming back to her hometown to lift up the Ocean City High School Red Raiders girls basketball team after a troubled couple of seasons, where players and parents accused the former head coach of bullying tactics in a matter that divided the community.
On Wednesday night, the Ocean City Board of Education approved Gaitley’s hiring during a tumultuous meeting.
An emotional debate over changes to state standards that involve education on sex and gender overshadowed the triumphant successful college coach’s hiring.
Gaitley, 62, who is a member of the well-known Vanderslice family in Ocean City, will receive a $6,807 stipend in the appointment, which is pending approval of the Interim Executive County Superintendent.
Before she began her coaching career, Gaitley played her first year of college basketball at the University of Delaware. The following three years of her college career, she played for Villanova University. The team won three Big Five championships and went on to the NCAA Final Four in 1982.
At OCHS, she was a standout from 1974-78 in rebounding and scoring.
In May, the BOE responded to allegations that then-girls basketball coach Michael Cappelletti mistreated the players by not renewing his contract. Critics said he called his players names and was harshly critical. Throughout the controversy over the coach, the Ocean City Education Association, (OCEA) the union representing teachers, supported Cappelletti.
On Wednesday night, among the speakers in support of hiring Gaitley as the new coach, were members of the girls Red Raiders basketball team.
Avery Jackson spoke on behalf of her friends and fellow basketball players for OCHS, Madelyn Adamson, Victoria Vliet and McKenna Chisholm.
“Board members, please hire Coach Gaitley,” Avery said, as she and her friends stood before the board. “She is a very talented and experienced basketball coach.”
Members of the community, including Madelyn Adamson’s mother, Jill Adamson, also spoke. Jill Adamson has been an outspoken parent over the coach, pleading with the board not to renew Cappelletti’s contract for his alleged mistreatment of the players.
“We are here despite a tumultuous time for many months,” Adamson told the board. “These strong girls are ready to move forward.”
Adamson then thanked the new Schools Superintendent Dr. Matthew Friedman for his support of the new coach and for the district helping to “ensure the rich legacy of the basketball program.”
“We look forward to the future,” she said.
Gaitley was not present for the meeting. However, her brother, Harry Vanderslice, of Ocean City, was. His voice was choked with emotion when he spoke of how special his sister is. “She has a good heart,” he said, adding that she will make a fine coach.
The 7 p.m. start time for the meeting was pushed back to 9:15 p.m., as the audience waited through two back-to-back executive sessions involving personnel matters, hiring and potential litigation.
When the board members emerged from the second executive session, residents got up to plead with the board to vote no to the new state standards that would allow more explicit sex education.
Linda Gronert, of Ocean City, a retired teacher, urged the district to vote against the new curriculum.
“To introduce these standards containing sexual content to children who do not have the wisdom or understanding to digest its concepts and implications could be harmful,” Gronert said. “I hope that the school board will consider not adding to the many things out there that are contributing to the stripping away the innocence of our youth.”
However, after comments from the public seeking that the board vote no, they voted yes 6-5, to approve the curriculum.
Lauren Guenther, who is the district’s curriculum coordinator and is in charge of student services, said during a presentation to the board that the parents may opt out of the specific education.
“I understand, as a parent, there are many concerns,” she said.
Parents and other stakeholders in the community suggested to the board that if other students still have that specific education, it will be a part of the district curriculum that the students would hear and know about even if their parents opted out of that portion of the new curriculum.
After the vote, Cape May County Commissioner E. Marie Hayes, an Ocean City resident, said, “I am devastated for what I am seeing. As a mother, I can tell you without a doubt, if my kids were in this school, they would be taken out of the school. You have made a big mistake.”
She agreed with another speaker, Janice Weber, who described the new curriculum as “oversexualizing children.”
Hayes added that she could not believe, despite all of the parents urging the board to vote against the curriculum, that they still voted for it.
In a statement released on Thursday, Superintendent Matthew Friedman explained in more detail the revised curriculum.
“We amended our health and physical education curriculum with a team of teachers and administrators with the goal of compliance with the minimum requirements,” Friedman said in the statement. “We made revisions in a thoughtful manner and want our school families to be involved.”
The health and physical education standards are posted on the district’s website for parents to review at oceancityschools.org.
The amended curriculum and supporting documents will be posted in September. Teachers are preparing lessons to meet these new learning goals in an age-appropriate manner, the release states.
“We respect every parent’s personal choices concerning their child’s health education,” said Patrick Kane, board president. “Although we will assure lessons are planned in an age-appropriate manner, parents can always opt-out of a specific part of the health curriculum. The opt-out option exemplifies our commitment to collaborate with our Ocean City families and we will continue to provide that option as education evolves.”
Parent meetings regarding the revised health programs will be held at district schools in September.
Also during Wednesday’s meeting, Ryan Leonard, of Ocean City, was sworn in to fill the unexpired term of Michael James, who relocated. Leonard will serve in his appointed seat through December, according to School Business Administrator Tim Kelley. That seat will be up for election for an additional one-year unexpired term in the November election.
In another matter, Friedman gave a brief report about freshman orientation. He noted that the orientation was successful and the district is ready to welcome back its students for another year on Sept. 6.
“We welcomed new staff in the district and were able to spend some time with them this week,” he said, adding that it went very well.