Citing low morale at the district high school, student representatives to the Collingswood school board of Education urge non-renewal of Superintendent Fredrick McDowell, who is under contract until 2024.
By Matt Skoufalos | February 1, 2023
Across the country, the past few years have been abnormally difficult for educators in a staggering number of ways.
After two years of operating during the chaotically shifting mandates of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, educators then endured a record-breaking year of on-campus shootings, being thrust in the middle of political culture-war confrontations, and staffing shortfalls affecting everything from cafeteria service to transportation.
Thus far, the Collingswood Public School District has been insulated from some of the worst of these environmental concerns; however, it nonetheless recently has sustained a troubling number of violent incidents, culminating in two students charged with aggravated assault after ambushing a classmate (and filming it) in December.
Compounding those concerns has been a persistent undercurrent of dissatisfaction among district personnel with the culture and climate at Collingswood High School (CHS), say seniors Riley Stacy and Aidan DiMarco. Both participate in student government at the high school in addition to serving as student representatives to the Collingswood Board of Education.
During the January 23 school board meeting, Stacy and DiMarco leveraged their positions on the board to deliver a written rebuke of district superintendent Fredrick McDowell, describing low morale among CHS faculty and staff under McDowell’s leadership.
In their student report to the board, the duo delivered anonymous testimonials gathered from some 22 district employees, whom they described as being fearful of reprisal from McDowell had the staff signed their names to them.
Despite couching their remarks in the context of McDowell’s contract coming up for renewal next year, the students stopped just short of calling for his removal at the meeting. DiMarco, however, has done exactly that separately and explicitly in a Change.org petition that mirrors the report he delivered last week.
Stacy said high-school faculty have expressed a supreme level of anxiety dating back to budget discussions in 2022, in which talks about eliminating foreign-language and arts electives bubbled to the surface. Although no jobs were cut in those talks, she said they triggered voluntary faculty departures that left a similar impact on CHS.
“The Latin teacher left the district, and now we have no Latin program,” Stacy said. “My French teacher had her eighth-grade class taken away from her with no notice, which means French 5 will eventually be impossible. That seems to be the beginning of a phase-out.
“Last year, [among] all the teachers who taught electives, the energy in the building was anxious,” she said. “Teachers were entirely too anxious to be effective. Then, having this sort of thing come up again makes you anxious. It feels like the cycle repeating itself.”
Stacy said that she and DiMarco spoke with various teachers whom they say “feel like there is just nowhere else to go” with their problems, and who are “actively seeking jobs in other districts.” The students believe it’s their responsibility to report back to the school board candidly about the culture and climate at the high school, even if they have to make those points with some degree of anonymity.
“Teacher morale is low, and it affects the entire school,” Stacy said. “We’re exposed to that every day. I think it really affects how we feel about going to school, how they feel about going to school. It permeates through the whole school. If the teaching morale is low, and teachers don’t feel supported in their positions, they can’t do the best that they feel they’re capable of.”
DiMarco, an Oaklyn resident who is also senior class president, said the high school, if not the district, has reached a breaking point.
“We believe that if these problems continue, which are being inflicted by the superintendent, our school district is going to fall apart in the next five years,” he said.
“Teachers are going to leave, administrators are currently leaving, [and] the majority of administrators in the middle and high school are not tenured.”
Asked whether he felt that openly calling for the superintendent’s resignation conflicts with his responsibilities as a student representative to the district Board of Education, DiMarco said he didn’t see it that way.
“I think I made a balanced decision by only addressing his contract renewal during the board meeting,” he said. “At the moment, I am focusing on getting support for his resignation outside of my role [on the school board].
“There is general feeling from students, teachers, administrators, and staff that Dr. McDowell needs to go,” DiMarco said. “Even tenured teachers are looking for new jobs. The only solution at the end of the day is that Dr. McDowell leaves this district, or we are going to see teachers leaving and things are going to fall apart.”
DiMarco further said that the superintendent’s approach, which McDowell has described as delegating authority for many school-based issues to building leadership rather than centralizing it among district administration, is not having its intended effect among staff.
“[McDowell] has completely deflected the issue of his responsibilities,” DiMarco said. “These fears and tensions that are brought by staff are not because of the middle and high school, but because of the decisions he’s made. Whenever there’s an issue that arises, he thinks it’s their responsibility that they resolve it.
“If I was superintendent, and the staff in the middle school and the high school are fearful of me, lack motivation, and then tell the administration that they need to deal with the issues that are caused by me, then I need to have direct conversations with the staff,” DiMarco said.
“He’s not going to be able to resolve these issues through administration.”
‘An adult agenda manifested through children’
For his part, McDowell said he understands the stress that accompanies the annual budgeting process, but that the “level of negative energy” represented in the remarks from the student board members “was misplaced.”
“There seems to be a lack of clarity around the role of the superintendent,” he said.
“The superintendent does not work at the high school; the superintendent provides support for all schools,” McDowell said.
“If there is a level of fear or anxiety on campus, we will be working collaboratively with the high school administration to make sure that it is solved.”
The superintendent further said that, although he appreciated the composure with which Stacy and DiMarco composed and delivered their presentation, “folks that are able to read between the lines are able to take away that there was an agenda.
“What I’m disappointed in is that it was an adult agenda manifested through children,” McDowell said.
Although the superintendent did acknowledge that the approach he has implemented, known as site-based leadership, represents a departure from the way that Collingswood has historically operated, McDowell said that nothing in the district budgeting, communications, or strategic planning processes “should be deemed as contentious.”
The format change is intended to empower building principals to determine the needs of their own facilities, giving individual leaders greater influence over how their buildings are run, from budgetary decisions to the reporting structure.
“There’s a lot of moving parts, and our job is to take the school community through that process to make sure that every school is able to get what they need to be able to meet the needs of their students,” McDowell said. “More decisions are being made at the school level, and we want [staff] to engage the schools directly as opposed to thinking these are centrally made decisions or mandates.
“At the high school, that’s not the way that things were done for the last decade,” he said. “Sometimes change is hard to absorb. This is now year two where we’re using the exact same process, and the accountability measures are ultimately the schools facilitating the discussion.”
McDowell chalked up anxiety around the budget process to a few factors, the first of which is a delay in the allocation of aid from the state Department of Education. Normally, that information would be available by the first week of February, but isn’t expected until the end of the month, which pushes back the district process to early March. (Building principals were to have submitted their individual budgets by December 19, 2022.)
Another challenge is the expiry of supplemental federal stimulus money that had been awarded districts during the pandemic, and which will expire throughout the next three years. Moreover, McDowell said, “budgets are always tense, and folks are fearful in this economy and in this environment.
“That does not mean the way to reconcile the budget is through people,” he said. “Almost 87 percent of our budget is personnel. I can run schools without paper; I can’t run schools without highly qualified and dedicated teachers.
“Currently we’re looking at ways to reduce operational expenditures so we don’t have to have that type of challenging conversations around layoffs or staffing,” McDowell said. “We did not lay off anybody last year, but that was where the fear was.”
The superintendent acknowledged that despite not laying off any personnel, some were reassigned amid other changes. His takeaway from that experience is that “working collaboratively with schools worked.
“Our budget was an accurate reflection of what schools said they needed,” McDowell said. “That’s no different this year.”
‘There seems to be a big disconnect’
Collingswood Board of Education President Regan Kaiden said that the remarks at last Monday’s school board meeting left her feeling concerned — not for the fact that students were speaking their minds, but because staff and faculty chose to pass along anonymous criticisms through them.
“There are specific structures in place for adults in that building to report problems,” Kaiden said.
“That is what the union is for; that’s what tenure is for,” she said.
“There is a grievance process; there is a formal complaint process,” Kaiden said.
“What’s going on in that building that the anonymous quotes came through students?”
The school board has not received any formal complaints about the superintendent from the Collingswood Education Association, Kaiden said. Regardless of the root teachers’ apparent dissatisfaction with district leadership or communication styles, however, Kaiden said the board needs more information than anonymous criticisms delivered through high-school students.
“Our work over the next couple of months is to dig into that, and get some answers about what’s going on,” she said. “There seems to be a big disconnect between Dr. McDowell, the administration, the staff, and the students. And why?”
The board president did praise Stacy and DiMarco for following their moral impulses in speaking out about the issues they’ve observed in the district. However, she was less impressed with school staff for not declining to participate in their anonymous survey.
“[The students] clearly have developed strong relationships with their teachers, and I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Kaiden said. “And I think it’s a wonderful and natural thing that they would want to protect those teachers. I’m proud of them for that. I believe fully that they felt they were doing what was right; hopefully, they will continue to use their voices to tell us how things are going for students.
“My concern lies in that, when teachers were asked to provide quotes, they didn’t say, ‘Thank you so much for thinking of us, but this is our job, and we have ways of dealing with that,’” she said.
In addition to the student report, the January 23 meeting was also marked by a number of public comments about McDowell, some from departing district employees, who expressed dissatisfaction with his leadership as superintendent. While absorbing those remarks as well, Kaiden rejected the notion that the district leader is somehow a stranger to Collingswood or its ways of doing things, as some of the feedback had suggested.
“[McDowell] didn’t move here to be superintendent,” she said. “He lives here, and has lived here since 2018. His daughter goes to our schools; his son will, too. I’m very uncomfortable with comments about how he doesn’t understand our culture. He is part of our community in every way.”
Even were the district to not renew McDowell’s contract, his appointment came after a national search reflecting significant cost and “months and months of intense work,” Kaiden said; a lengthy process that would be repeated in the event of replacing him. As Collingswood and Oaklyn share the costs of a school superintendent and business administrator, any decision involving those personnel affects both districts as well.
Kaiden also noted that the leadership transition in which McDowell took office came amid a particularly disruptive period, with outgoing superintendent Scott Oswald announcing his retirement at the outset of the 2020-2021 school year, while the district was still mired in COVID-19 and its mandates.
“The beginning of [McDowell’s] tenure was getting the school buildings open,” Kaiden said. “That’s a hard time to build relationships because everybody was in survival mode. Teachers are still in survival mode.
“The unimaginable trauma that we’ve all gone through is a full-on factor in all of this,” she said. “To have a new person come in and make changes at a time when everything feels so fragile to begin with is a very hard thing to take.
“We have to find a way to care for our teachers, while also making some changes to how things are run so we’re also supporting kids in the best way possible,” Kaiden said. “That’s a tough balance when everyone is feeling so fragile. I think that’s the reality of where we are.”
‘A speed bump’
For its part, the Collingswood Education Association (CEA) also appears to be mired in talks with district and building administrations, the school board, and its own membership about the current working conditions at CHS.
Without offering specifics, CEA President Rick Pence said that district teachers are “in constant conversations to try to correct disagreements that we may or may not have with the board of education.”
Pence described union leadership as working together with the board on those issues, however, and said that all parties are “trying to make the district the best we can make the district.
“We just hit a speed bump at the last meeting,” he said.
Neither could Pence comment on where the student representatives derived the testimonials that they presented in their report. Despite commending DiMarco and Stacy for voicing their opinions, and vouchsafing their rights to do so, he did say that “the mechanism that the students used probably was inappropriate,” and that the CEA was uninvolved in their process.
“Students voices are student voices,” Pence said. “I thought those students spoke very well on top of that, but my members get recommendations from me also that they should bring any issues that they have to me so we can explore it through union leadership.”
Although the district is still working through the changes that have come with the zero-based budgeting process and site-based leadership directives installed under McDowell, Pence said he’s trying to get staff to buy into the practice to see how it goes in its second year.
“With any new administration, changes are going to occur, and when changes are going to occur, people see the change as a positive or a negative,” Pence said. “I don’t feel that we’re any different than we were six months ago. We’re going to grow from it, and when we disagree, we’ll disagree in a process, and try to keep it behind the scenes.”
The union president also said that CEA has not yet contemplated taking any formal action against McDowell, up to and including a vote of no confidence. He did describe an apparent “communication gap” and “some concerns” at the school levels based on last year’s budgeting process; however, he said those involved are “trying to let this process play out.
“We had some issues that we are trying to deal with, and we are going to get through these issues,” Pence said.
“The reason my members got into this field is to educate students,” he said. “I have a staff that’s constantly looking out and advocating for the students to get them the best possible education that they deserve.”
Please support NJ Pen with a subscription. Get e-mails, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or try our Direct Dispatch text alerts.