Ogdensburg school board catches heat for leaving Sharrow's name off track and field complex
By THOMAS LUCKIE III
OGDENSBURG – A recent proposal to include the name of long-time Ogdensburg Free Academy coach and retired physical education teacher Penny Raftis Sharrow in the renaming and dedication of the school’s track and field complex was rejected by the Board of Education on a vote of 6 to 3.
The proposal sparked a large and spirited citizen turnout at Wednesday’s meeting.While the board approved the naming of the facility as the “Mr. Steven J. Barlow Track and Field Complex” at a meeting on Monday, April 2, Dr. Diane Para, a 1982 graduate of OFA and professor and current director of the Sports Management program at SUNY Canton, formally submitted a proposal requesting the board consider including Sharrow’s name along with Barlow’s at a meeting on Monday, May 7.
An online petition supporting the addition of Sharrow’s name to the track and field complex had also garnered over 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday evening.
Para spoke before the board and administration when comments relative to the agenda were opened to the public during the beginning of the meeting.
“First, I ask you to consider how we even got here – what appears to be to us, a hasty decision about something incredibly important, one that led to an unthinkable slight of a coach that logged more miles around that track than anyone,” Para said.
“More than 33 years worth of miles yelling encouraging words, celebrating wins, comforting after losses, pushing and inspiring athletes to put in effort that will carry them to their very best potential,” she added.
Para then accused Superintendent Timothy Vernsey of indifference towards the inclusion of Sharrow’s name while also stating that he encouraged Sharrow to gather facts and records in order to have someone submit a proposal for the board to reconsider.
“The person who proposed the naming for Coach Barlow doesn’t care that the naming is shared, as he told us last week, it just wasn’t up to him,” Para said, in reference to Vernsey.
“If the person who brought the original proposal doesn’t care and supported Penny to bring the proposal forward, how can this be wrong?” she asked.
The notion of funding a new sign for the complex was also addressed by Para, who turned to those in attendance and stated she was confident that the necessary funds of around $2,500 could be collected through donations on the spot, if necessary.
Para then resubmitted the proposal that the complex be named “The Steve Barlow, Penny Raftis Sharrow Boys and Girls Track and Field Complex” and be considered for public vote by the board.
“Having Coach Sharrow’s name prominently displayed on a sign visible to the masses alongside a male coach would not only serve her rightful recognition, but moreover, as an inspiration and influence for generations of young female athletes to come,” Para said.
Para also stated that the proposal to include Sharrow’s name was not intended to diminish the legacy of Barlow, but that both individuals “deserve to be on that sign.”
Several other citizens coached by Sharrow over the years also spoke before the board to offer support for the proposal during the early stages of the meeting.
A letter written by Amy Farrell, a 1995 graduate of OFA and triathlete who recently won the women’s overall title at the IRONMAN Santa Rosa in California, also encouraged the board to consider recognizing Sharrow in the naming of the complex and was read aloud at the meeting.
“I honestly can’t imagine my life if she hadn’t taken me under her wing and nurtured my quirkiness from 11 to 18 years of age,” Farrell wrote.
“Penny Raftis Sharrow deserves more respect and recognition than just a pat on the back,” Farrell also wrote.
During official discussion of the naming of the complex on the agenda, board member James King made a motion for the board to reconsider his previously tabled motion from the last meeting that Sharrow’s name be added to the complex.
Board member Michael Tooley then offered some comments on the motion while it was on the floor, stating that in his opinion Coach Raftis Sharrow’s contributions do merit recognition by the school district.
Tooley floated the suggestion that Sharrow be recognized in the Monument Park at OFA as a potentially alternative solution.
“This park is to honor the supporters of OFA Blue Devils athletics and to remember those who have made a lasting impact on the athletic program here at OFA,” Tooley said, in reference to the plaque in the park.
Tooley then stated that he would be voting against the motion to include Sharrow’s name in the track and field complex, but would ask district administration to include recognition of Coach Sharrow in the park as an agenda item at the next board meeting.
Board member Laurie Zweifel noted the board’s process for reviewing submitted proposals should perhaps be reconsidered moving forward.
“It really saddens me that the school controversy is in place because it’s really all about accomplishments and recognition and it feels negative,” Zweifel said.
Board member Lawrence Mitchell offered reflection on the early days of female athletics at Ogdensburg Free Academy and Sharrow’s involvement.
“I remember very clearly Penny Sharrow sticking up for the girls programs, fighting for their right to play. I want to see Penny recognized for what she did for girls sports, not only in Ogdensburg, but all over,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell ultimately voted no on the proposal, stating that he didn’t want to “disrespect” Barlow, but noted that he was in favor of recognizing Sharrow’s efforts in some capacity.
The proposal failed to be approved by the board with a 6-3 vote, as board members Vicky Peo, James King and Renee Grizzuto cast the only votes in favor of adding Sharrow’s name to the complex.
In the wake of the proposal’s rejection by the board, more supporters of the proposal spoke when comments were opened to citizens at the conclusion of the meeting.
Sharrow’s daughter, Melissa Sharrow-Bouchey, who created the online petition, addressed the board and administration.
“When this all came about, I don’t know how you didn’t think of Penny Sharrow. Everybody associates that track with my mother,” Sharrow-Bouchey said.
“I didn’t even know there was a Monument Park. From what I hear most of the people there are dead. She’s still alive and she’s still coaching,” she said.
Sharrow currently coaches the modified boys spring track and field team at OFA in what is now a 40-year involvement with track and field at the school.
Para also elected to speak two more times before the conclusion of the meeting, as she questioned the board’s compliance regarding New York State’s Open Meetings Law for holding discussions about the naming of the complex in an executive rather than public session.
“Is there a limit as to how many times a proposal can be brought before the board?” Para also asked.
“I don’t believe there is,” said Board President Ronald Johnson.
Para then notified the board that she plans to bring the proposal back.
In a brief interview after the meeting, Vernsey stated that he originally proposed naming the track and field complex after Barlow due to his outstanding accomplishments.
“The board has to consider each proposal on its own merit and make a decision. Mr. Barlow is very deserving. The rest is up to the board,” Vernsey said.
The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Monday, June 18.