By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Community members packed the auditorium at Van Antwerp Middle School the evening of Nov. 13 to hear how Niskayuna High School Principal John Rickert balances his administrative responsibilities with his second job as a sports agent.
As an agent, Rickert represents over 100 professional athletes and has negotiated $300 million worth of contracts.
Rickert has been principal since 2001, and ventured into his second career in 2003.
In the 11 years since, students, parents, board members and superintendents have repeatedly asked: How do you do it?
In late October, local author Tom Swyers wrote a blog post accusing Rickert of short-changing his students in focusing on his second job. The post circulated widely on social media, prompting dozens of residents to email the interim superintendent and board members.
Swyers did not attend the meeting. He declined to say why when contacted afterward.
In response, Rickert chose to answer the question of his time management publicly at the special Board of Education meeting.
Community members were not invited to comment during the meeting, which was described as an executive session with an audience. Interim Superintendent John Yagielski said it wouldn’t have been constructive to allow the public to comment on a personnel matter. However, he welcomed questions and statements after the fact, promising they would be kept confidential.
Rickert said, simply put, he has other people who can take his place when he’s occupied with school business.
“School has always come first,” Rickert said.
He’s able to put his sports agency second because his attorney and business partner, Peter Schaffer, is authorized to speak for him at any time. Rickert said their agreement is that no one may call him between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on school days.
There are other times when he’s busy, too, at concerts, PTO meetings and other school engagements. When he doesn’t answer the phone, he said, his clients call Schaffer.
“Everybody knows when my availability is and when it isn’t,” he said.
Rickert said he was relieved to have the opportunity to put the issue of his second job as a sports agent to rest, although he expects his colleagues and the Board of Education to continue to hold him accountable.
He said since his agent work is no secret, people often think he is conducting nonschool business during instructional hours. Once, he said, he answered a flip phone he uses strictly for school-related communication. After a pause, he asked, “How bad is he hurt?”
Nearby students assumed Rickert was talking about one of his star football players. Rumors circulated about the call. In fact, he said, he was discussing a student who had been injured during physical education class and was being transported to the hospital.
“These are the perceptions that I deal with,” he said.
As Yagielski repeatedly pointed out, Rickert was not obligated to speak publicly about issues pertaining to his employment with the district.
“It’s 100 percent permissible and legal,” Rickert said of his side work. “I’m also sensitive to the district’s image.”
In addition to his presentation Thursday, Rickert has asked the company that handles his social media not to post during school hours. He also stopped participating in a radio show that was often re-broadcast around 10 a.m. on weekdays, during school. He used these instances as examples of ways he’s gone above what’s required to protect the district’s reputation and his own.
The post also alleged Rickert had been neglecting his school duties in favor of being a sports agent and that Niskayuna students’ college admission rates had dropped as a result.
Yagielski displayed carefully collected data from colleges and high school guidance files that rebutted claims of lowered admissions. In fact, he said, college admissions have been increasing.
The information Swyers had cited in his original post was based on self-reporting by students, and showed acceptance rates below 50 percent. The updated numbers showed rates above 70 percent.
The school district’s attorney, Hank Sobota, was also on hand to clarify Rickert’s contractual obligations. Sobota said Rickert has to comply with the district’s code of ethics, which states that outside employment is prohibited if it “creates a conflict with or impairs the proper discharge of official duties.”
Sobota said this is on par with the ethics codes of more than 150 other school districts he represents. He added that any kind of exclusivity clause preventing district employees from taking on outside employment would be both unprecedented and nearly impossible to negotiate.
He also made it clear that, in his opinion, Rickert is not in violation of the district’s ethics code.
“I’m not aware of any evidence that there is any interference in the case we’re going to discuss tonight,” Sobota said.
Matthew Mizbani, a senior at Niskayuna High School, attended the meeting out of curiosity. He said he knows Rickert well, having organized a group of students who meet regularly with the principal and superintendent to improve communication about school issues, like a recent change in the way grade-point averages are calculated.
He said he respects Rickert and supports him, but admitted Rickert’s second job is an object of curiosity.
“It is something students like to joke about,” he said.
Mizbani said he was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting.
Niskayuna resident Peter Purcell’s two children, aged 32 and 23, each graduated from Niskayuna High School.
His son, the older of the two, played football during high school. His daughter has physical limitations resulting from a stroke she suffered when she was younger.
Purcell said Rickert always impressed him with the way he met each of his children’s unique needs.
As for the allegations that Rickert’s agent work keeps him from connecting with students, Purcell said, “There couldn’t be anything more absurd.”
Even some who came with a less-positive opinion of the situation found the meeting constructive. Debra Gordon, vice president of the Board of Education, said a parent who had doubted Rickert’s ability to handle both jobs approached her after the meeting to let her know it had completely changed the parent’s tone.
“To hear a positive response from someone who had negative views was reassuring,” Gordon said.
Rickert closed his presentation, which included questions from the Board of Education, with a reminder that he chose to become an educator because his father, a teacher and administrator, was one, too.
He calculated that, as of Thursday night, he had spent 4,123 days serving the Niskayuna Central School District.
“I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to go to school today,’ ” he said. “I’m here because I want to be here and that’s it.”