Meet the Candidates: Collingswood BOE 2016

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We invited school board candidates from each of our coverage areas to submit short biographies of themselves to inform voters ahead of the November 8 elections.

By Matt Skoufalos

This Election Day (November 8) Collingswood, like many towns in the area, has a contested school board election, with six candidates running for three open positions. NJ Pen invited everyone on the ballot to share a little about themselves with voters.** Here’s how they responded.

Raymond Becker, Jr. Credit: Raymond Becker, Jr.

Raymond Becker, Jr. Credit: Raymond Becker, Jr.

Raymond Becker, Jr. (challenger)

Gloucester City native Raymond Becker, Jr., 59, has lived in Collingswood for six years with his husband and partner of 38 years, Richard Wilson.

Becker, Jr. is retired from a 33-year career in education, with half that time spent at university-level leadership positions, including Dean of Academic Affairs at The Art Institute of Philadelphia and Dean of Students at Philadelphia University.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in special education, a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and a doctorate in higher education leadership.

Becker, Jr. has chaired or served on the boards of the William Way LGBT Center, the Delaware County, PA Human Relations Board, Options – A Women’s Way Organization, the Chester Community Improvement Project, and Chester Eastside Ministries. He also founded and directs the Widener Leadership Academy, which trains community members in leadership and project management skills.

Philosophy of Education:

“Having spent my career at colleges and universities that are focused on career preparation, I have realized the importance of preparing students to become successful members of society. In order to achieve this goal, public schools must remain focused on the whole child. In addition to the acquisition of academic skills, it is important for students to gain the ability to collaborate and work effectively with others preparing them to become members of a diverse society in which they can grow to be healthy and happy in the lives they choose to lead.”

Why would you like to serve on the school board?

“Since I moved to Collingswood six years ago, I have wondered how I could best utilize my professional and personal abilities to contribute to the vitality and enhancement of our community. In examining my experience in both higher education and community organizations, I believe the best way to utilize these skills would be to serve the community as a member of the Collingswood School Board.”

What are the biggest challenges for Collingswood schools?

“Collingswood is a great small town, but in many ways, it is a microcosm of the larger area. Our housing stock runs from grand Victorians to large apartment complexes and everything in between, which means we have students who come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. As such, we need to always be mindful that our resources are expended wisely and address the diverse needs of our students.”

What are the biggest strengths of Collingswood schools?

“Over and over, if you ask parents and alumni about the biggest strength of the district, they will relate stories of the care and concern that teachers and staff have for students and the positive impact they have on their lives. There is research that the strongest indicator of student success is the relationship between students and their teachers. Collingswood needs to be sure to continue to hold this as a value and design schools that will foster these relationships while encouraging new learning.”

What are three key issues you would focus on if elected?

Budget: The major role of the school board is to develop budgets that make the most of the available resources of the school district. State funding and mandates have become political footballs that often hamper long-term planning on the part of a school district. I have experience dealing with strategic planning and large budgets that take into consideration personnel, programs and services, operational expenses and facilities. I hope to use this experience to contribute to a budgeting process that will make the most of the limited resources available, and provide students of Collingswood with the excellent education they deserve.

“Student-centered instruction and assessment: In recent years, there has been more and more interference on the state and federal level with the ways in which school districts can operate. An overemphasis on standardized testing, top-down teacher evaluation systems, and statewide standards are only three examples of the ways in which outside forces influence the decisions that are made in the classroom. Collingswood has developed a reputation for putting commonsense solutions into place, and fighting back against some of these initiatives. I hope to use my influence on the board to continue to make decisions that are focused on real student learning as opposed to compliance with outside systems.

Communication: One of the ongoing challenges in any school district is the need to implement an effective program while at the same time ensuring that there is ongoing communication that keeps parents and community members informed. Collingswood is a community that has clearly shown it values open and transparent school and community leadership. The school board plays an important role in ensuring communication this is timely with ongoing openness and transparency.”

Clinton Connor. Credit: Clinton Connor.

Clinton Connor. Credit: Clinton Connor.

Clinton Connor (challenger)

Clinton Connor’s career has spanned various non-profit organizations, including those focused on domestic violence, homelessness, and children’s services.

He is the associate vice president of Head Start and Early Head Start at the Center for Family Services in Camden City.

Connor has spent eight years directing high-quality early childhood education facilities, and has taken two of them through national accreditation. He and his wife are eight-year Collingswood residents; their two children attend elementary and preschool in the borough.

Philosophy of education:

“Children have different learning styles. Some children learn by actively participating, some learn by watching demonstrations; some can memorize from books, some learn best in groups, and some learn best alone. Children also learn at different paces. There are also many subject areas where children have strengths and weaknesses. Some pick up on instruments quickly but struggle in literacy development. Some children are gifted in reading comprehension, but have difficulties learning math.

“It is important to develop individualized curriculum and portfolio-based assessment to meet the particular needs of each child. There are many different types of intelligence outside of the traditional academic memorization. We can take a holistic approach to creating learning environments and honoring the whole child.”

Why would you like to serve on the school board?

“I want to be on the school board because I was inspired by the community’s commitment to its children over this past summer. That kind of commitment is exactly what it takes to make good programs great. I have had the privilege of leading educational programs for young children for almost 10 years, and have seen first-hand how powerful community involvement can be.

“I also feel that my education and experience would serve the community well. My background would provide valuable input in policy formation for the district in the key areas that I feel could be improved upon. I have a considerable amount of experience working with underserved families, developing nationally recognized programs in early childhood education, creating progressive policy changes that improve communication among stakeholders in Pre-K through third-grade systems, and creating innovative solutions that balance the wants and needs of a variety of different interests. I want to work for this community.”

What are the biggest challenges for Collingswood schools?

“The district has a number of challenges. We have an aging infrastructure, a considerable amount of bad press over the last three years, and communication challenges. We also have the challenge of regaining the trust between community members and the school district. However, I feel the biggest challenge that the district currently faces is our substantial achievement gap. The district is incredibly diverse: 53 percent of our children are white, 20 percent are black, 19 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are Asian. Seventeen percent of our children have a disability; 47 percent of our children are considered economically disadvantaged.

“Unfortunately, not all groups are achieving at the same level. We have graduation rates of 90 percent for white children, 79 percent for black children, and 65 percent for economically disadvantaged children. Only 68 percent of our children with disabilities are graduating. These gaps do not exist at other districts in our school peer group. It is my belief that this lack of equity has a negative impact on everyone. We need to give all of our children the inclusive environments and appropriate supports to meet their potential. These large disparities do a disservice to the academic and social development of all of our children. It also impacts the school’s ratings and reputation.”

What are the biggest strengths of Collingswood schools?

“I have seen some remarkable things taking place in our district. We have faculty introducing innovative ideas, such as inviting community members in to class to discuss how they use math in their careers. I have seen PTA’s take the lead on beautifying the landscaping in front of their schools and improving playgrounds. The community members are clearly one of the schools’ biggest strengths. This was exemplified by the large number of families that showed interest in the schools over this past summer.

“One of the other strengths is the community’s socioeconomic diversity. When honored, diverse communities offer so much richness to the development of children. Our diversity is also driving characteristics that people use in determining to live here in Collingswood.”

What are three key issues you would focus on if elected?

“I would focus on developing policy to close the achievement gap, improve communication, and capitalize on community involvement. A key to achieving all of these goals would be the establishment of a parent policy council that would work alongside the Board of Ed members.”

Tim Farrow. Credit: Tim Farrow.

Tim Farrow. Credit: Tim Farrow.

Tim Farrow (incumbent)

Tim Farrow is up for re-election as his first term on the Collingswood Board of Education comes to an end.

Farrow and his wife Jodie have lived in the borough Collingswood for nearly a decade with their sons Patrick, Connor, Teddy, and Thomas. The school-aged boys attend classes in the borough school district.

Farrow is a criminal defense attorney and partner at Dash Farrow, LLP of Moorestown. He chairs the Rutgers University Alumni Association, and is a past president of the Burlington County Bar Association.

Farrow also coaches the Collingswood High School mock trial team and has coached multiple sports in the borough.

Philosophy of education:

“Our education system is the foundation of our nation, our state, and of course, our town. Teachers are the heart of that system, and they should be valued, honored, and respected for playing that crucial role. Parents and teachers should be partners in our children’s education, but as experts and professionals, teachers should take the lead. Lastly, educators should be free to creatively build upon their expertise without constraints of over-regulation and broad-based assessments.”

Why would you like to serve on the school board?

“My wife and I love this town. Our schools are the future of our town, and I want their reputations to match the reputation of our Main Street and restaurants. In the last three years, I have seen first-hand that our schools have earned that respect, and I am proud of the work we have done to build upon that success. I love working with the people on this board and in our administration. There is still much to do, and I look forward to having the opportunity to continue that progress.”

What are the biggest challenges for Collingswood schools?

“The ever-present challenge for our schools is the falsehood created by ‘school rankings.’ One of our greatest strengths is our diversity, but ‘school rankings’ and ‘scores’ fail to take that into account. Because some of our students might start out with less opportunity to succeed than others, standardized test scores and graduation rates might always be lower than in more affluent towns. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to do better, but we have to work harder to taut our progress through other means outside the box of ‘school rankings.’

“The other recent challenge is communication. Everyone is aware of the recent issue this summer involving our schools, the police, and the prosecutor’s office. As has been stated in letters, forums, and meetings, our board and our administration has accepted responsibility for making mistakes in communication. We have learned that communication with the prosecutor’s office and our community could have been improved, and I vow to ensure that proper communication with our parents will remain a paramount concern of our board.”

What are the biggest strengths of Collingswood schools?

“As I said above, one of the biggest strengths is our diversity. Our children are extremely fortunate to learn in an environment where they can learn not only from textbooks, but through their experiences and friendships with so many other children with backgrounds and lives different than theirs.

“Another strength is our passion and love for this town. Our residents are passionate about our children and passionate about our schools, too. They are willing to volunteer and challenge our schools to be the best they can be, and the future is only brighter.”

What are three key issues you would focus on if re-elected?

“The first issue I would focus on is obtaining and retaining high-quality teachers and administrators. Although this might seem like a very obvious and general issue, especially since one of our standing committees on which I serve is the personnel committee, I believe it is especially crucial at the current time. Teachers are under attack in this state more than ever based the current governor’s administration’s positions on issues like unions, salaries, pensions, healthcare, and standardized test-based evaluations. Applications statewide are down significantly, so we must remain vigilant in obtaining and retaining the high-quality teachers we have. Although we must always carry out our duty to assist in evaluating our teachers and administrators, we must always be cautious of the effect of any negative attacks upon any of our staff members might have on the rest of the staff.

“As with the first, the second issue is also somewhat obvious and general, but also is urgent at the current time: budget. As with issue number one, the governor’s office has attacked our school budgets like no other in history has. The challenges based upon the cap limitations imposed upon us are becoming more and more difficult. At the same time, the expenditures based upon ever-increasing needs in our schools continue to increase. Our town’s recreation facilities, particularly at the high school and middle school, are in dire need of repair or replacement. I have participated in an ad-hoc committee to address that particular issue. It is crucial that we continue to creatively structure our budget in these challenging times.

“The third issue is communication. Our board and administration recognized that we made some errors in communication during the recent issue with the prosecutor’s office over the summer. Although we acted promptly in a very difficult situation, we could have communicated sooner and in a better fashion with the prosecutor directly and to the public. I am committed to improving our overall communication is such a crisis situation through the lessons we have learned. I also think we need to work on our communication and public relations so that important issues are discussed in a more open fashion in a manner directed from our schools rather than just ‘about our schools on Facebook and other social media sources.”

David Routzahn. Credit: David Routzahn.

David Routzahn. Credit: David Routzahn.

David Routzahn (incumbent)

David Routzahn is the current president of the Collingswood Board of Education, and has served on the board since 2010.

Routzahn has lived in the borough almost 20 years with his wife, Kim, and children Ellie and Matthew, who attend Collingswood High School and Zane North, respectively.

Routzahn is a partner at Hempstead & Co., LLC, a Haddonfield-based boutique corporate valuation firm.

He volunteers his time as a lector and parish council president at Transfiguration Church in Collingswood, member of the borough zoning board, treasurer of the Collingswood girls travel soccer club, and the Collingswood Recreation Soccer advisory board.

Routzahn has coached Collingswood recreational league baseball, softball, soccer, and basketball teams, performed with the Collingswood Community Theatre, and is a swim official in the Suburban Swim Association.

Philosophy of education:

“My philosophy of education is pretty straightforward and it begins with all of our amazing students. I believe the best education includes the ‘whole student.’ I believe that our buildings should be places that contribute not only to the scholastic development of our students but also their social, emotional and physical development as well. I believe a well-rounded education includes curricular and co-curricular activities, such as athletics, music and the visual arts.

“I believe that our teachers should be able to teach with minimal interference from external influences. In Collingswood, we are fortunate enough to have a talented teaching staff of trained professionals, many of whom have advanced degrees in education. I believe our educators should be given a relatively wide berth in completing their lesson plans and then bringing them to life.

“I believe that our students should be challenged and encouraged to ‘push themselves.’ Vincent Van Gogh once asked, ‘What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?’ I believe our teachers and administrators do an excellent job of making sure our students do not fall into the trap of an unchallenged mind and I would work to see that philosophy continue.”

Why would you like to serve on the school board?

“At the risk of sounding clichéd, serving on the board these past six years has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. My service on the board has allowed me to give back to a community that has given me and my family an amazing place to call home these past 19+ years, and I hope you allow me to continue serving you and our neighbors.

“Highly effective and efficient schools are a key component to a vibrant community. I truly believe that our district offers its students an outstanding education and a reason to be proud. Obviously there have been some bumps along the way, but our staff and board are committed to the district’s stated goal ‘to provide the highest-quality education that ensures success for every student through excellence in teaching and learning.’

“Public school districts face a high degree of legislative interference in local education. New Jersey’s governing bodies continue to believe in one-size-fits-all education policy. Having previously served as Collingswood’s board representative to the New Jersey School Boards Association, and having had previous met with all of our local legislators concerning education policy, I would welcome the opportunity to continue to advocate for our students and my fellow taxpayers from governmental overreach.”

What are the biggest challenges for Collingswood schools?

“An ongoing challenge for our district is the outdated perception regarding the quality of education in our district and the overall environment in our high school. I continue to hear the same stories regarding our high school that I heard when we first moved to town, and they continue to be almost entirely baseless. Collingswood High School is not unlike just about every other high school in the state: we have our issues, but those issues are far outweighed by the enormous amount of good that occurs. We need to do a better job of promoting all the great things our district has to offer.

“As with nearly every other district in the state, school funding is always a challenge. And if it is not a challenge yet, wait. Our academic and extra-curricular programs were built based on the funding sources in place. If any of those sources were to be interrupted, there could be a substantial negative impact on our district. Due to the ever-looming financial challenges facing New Jersey school districts, your administration and board have maintained a high degree of fiscal conservatism, and I would like to see that continue, at least over the short-term.

What are the biggest strengths of Collingswood schools?

“I believe one of our district’s greatest strengths to be the collection of individuals who contribute to its success. From our hard-working, multi-talented, diverse student population to our dedicated, similarly multi-talented and forward-thinking educators to our engaged and incredibly supportive Collingswood, Oaklyn and Woodlynne communities, our district has no shortage of helping hands. Thank you.

“Our district offers a growing roster of high-quality classes and programs, including our TV production school choice program. In addition to updated curricula, the district’s staff added several new courses for the 2016-2017 school year, including AP Physics and Perspectives from a Diverse America as well as offered honors credit for Advanced Digital Graphic Design and Art 4. With a progressive staff continually searching for cutting-edge educational opportunities, the roster of programs will surely continue to expand.

“In addition to high-quality academic programs, our district boasts some of the best athletic and other co- curricular programs in the area. From our conference- and state-title-winning sports programs to our award-winning marching Band and our highly touted arts programs, our district has something for every student that calls one of our buildings home.”

What are three key issues you would focus on if re-elected?

“Two issues originating outside of Collingswood would demand the near-immediate attention of all board members, as they would have significant impacts on our district; those two issues are the potential integration of Oaklyn’s sixth, seventh and eighth graders into Collingswood Middle School and Woodlynne’s recently reported desire to sever its send/receive relationship with Collingswood. We love our students who reside in Oaklyn and Woodlynne, so the reconstituted board will need to make sure that those two issues are resolved in a manner that provides maximum benefit to all of the students we serve, to our district, as a whole, and to the taxpayers of Collingswood.

“Going forward, the board will also need to refocus its attention on what has been billed as the “stadium project”. I believe the totality of that initiative will provide substantial academic, athletic and financial opportunity for our district and I would focus on pushing the project forward during the 2017 calendar year.

“I want to see a continuation of our focus on literacy while beginning/continuing similar efforts into our math programs. Our literacy programs have had a strong positive influence on student achievement and that, obviously, needs to continue. While we have also had success in the area of mathematics, and perform well relative to our peers, there is always room for growth and I look forward to reaching a place where the current, considerable effort in our classrooms (on the part of both staff and student) is reflected in our achievement markers.

“I want to promote continuous improvement in our special education programs, and I would like to see more of our special needs students educated in Collingswood. I believe an important part of our school culture and an important part of all of our students’ education is interaction with kids ‘not like themselves.’ Having attended many of our special education’s programs’ events, I have seen first-hand how well our kids integrate into the general education population and how much they have to offer their fellow students, special needs or not. Likewise, exposure to our general education students is beneficial to the social and emotional growth of our special needs students.

“I would like to see continued growth in our 18-21 program, which provides our special needs students continued job training and education beyond after high school graduation. Beyond the potential financial benefit to our district, such a program provides vital opportunities and experiences for our students.”

2016 Collingswood BOE Candidate Stephen Rydzewski. Credit: Stephen Rydzewski.

2016 Collingswood BOE Candidate Stephen Rydzewski. Credit: Stephen Rydzewski.

Stephen T. Rydzewski (incumbent)

Stephen T. Rydzewski is up for re-election as his 12th year serving on the Board of Education comes to a completion.

A lifelong Collingswood resident, Rydzewski, 47, is a sergeant in his 21st year with the Collingswood Police Department.

Officer Steve” has worked in the Collingswood and Woodlynne Schools for about 14 years as a DARE/SUNRISE officer and as the Collingswood Middle and High School resource officer.

For 16 years, Rydzewski has volunteered with the Collingswood Little League as the board vice-president and safety officer and as a manager with the major-league-level Ames Drug Store team.

During his 12 years on the Collingswood Board of Education, Rydzewski participated in the superintendent search and interviews that led to the hiring of Scott Oswald and helped pass a major Bond Referendum in 2005. Rydzewski has served on all board committees, and chaired the personnel committee for six of his 12 years of service. His credits interactions with past presidents W. Craig Knaup, Kevin Walker, and the late Louis Cappelli, Sr. with informing his perspective on board membership. 

Rydzewski has attended St. John’s School (Good Shepherd), Bishop Eustace Prep, and has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from LaSalle. 

If re-elected for a fifth term, Rydzewski said he will continue to focus on the future of Collingswood schools, keeping communication lines open between the school board and the community.

Jason Waugh. Credit: Jason Waugh.

Jason Waugh. Credit: Jason Waugh.

Jason Waugh (challenger)

Jason Waugh, 37, is a career educator with a master’s degree in elementary and special education. Waugh holds principal and teaching certifications in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Currently, he is a district administrator assigned to revising district and school policy, improving the quality of teacher instruction through school leader support, and increasing the career and college readiness of students at five local high schools.

For the past 15 years, Waugh has been a special education teacher and held school leadership roles as an assistant principal, director of special education, director of curriculum and instruction, and athletic director at schools in Camden City, Philadelphia, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Waugh has lived in Collingswood for the past eight years with wife and his three children aged 7, 4, and 1. He is a founding member of the parent-led Collingswood Educational Advocacy Group.

Philosophy of education:

“My philosophy of education is based deeply in the progressive’s view, whereas learning should be a hands-on experience with an emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking. Teaching and learning should occur primarily through group work, and focus not only on academics, but equally on social/emotional development. Learning objectives should be based on understanding rather than rote memorization.

“Integration of community service and service learning projects must be embedded into the curriculum and across all content areas. Children should be assessed using projects, portfolios, and long-term assignments throughout the school year, as opposed to high-stakes tests each spring. Lastly, differentiation during instruction is the key to meeting our children’s diverse needs and allowing them to reach their full potential.”

Why would you like to serve on the school board?

“First, I can bring a district administrator’s perspective to the Collingswood Board of Education. I have devoted my life to public education, and I believe that the board can utilize my knowledge and experience to better serve the children and the school community. I have worked with boards of education throughout my career, and I understand the inner workings of this system. I believe that it is the right time in my life to serve the community in which I live.

“Secondly, I care deeply about the children of our community. Most of my career has been spent in the area of special education, where I have served as the number one advocate for children with special needs. I understand New Jersey school code, and I know the rights of our children. I believe that our board is in need of someone with this knowledge and experience.

“Lastly, Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.’ The decisions that a board of education makes are paramount to the success of its district, staff, and the children it serves. The Collingswood Board of Education needs to start making those right decisions if we want to be a truly great district. I have made many tough decisions throughout my career as an administrator, and this invaluable experience can benefit our district.”

What are the biggest challenges for Collingswood schools?

“Meeting the needs of all children. Whether a child has a special need or is gifted, instruction must be tailored to each individual child. All of our children have the capacity to succeed in school and beyond, and it is the district’s responsibility to ensure this occurs. The days of ‘teaching to the middle’ are over, and our district needs to start operating in this progressive view of education.

“Parent and community involvement. Collingswood is an amazing town that I am proud to call home. We have passionate and educated people who would like to have more of a voice and stake when it comes to the decision making process for our district. The Collingswood Board of Education needs to ensure that all stakeholders have a say and that their opinions are valued.

“Special Education. True inclusion goes beyond having children with special needs attend art, PE, music, lunch and assemblies with their peers. All children have the fundamental right to be educated with non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible. I believe that our district can do a better job ensuring our children with special needs are educated in their district school and in the general education setting.”

What are the biggest strengths of Collingswood schools?

“The Collingswood school district is a kind and caring place for our children to grow and learn. Our schools are safe, and the climate is warm and inviting. We have teachers and staff members in our schools who care deeply about our children.

“Another strength is the middle school’s annual goal to focus on ‘Growth Mindset and Grit.’ When children are taught in an environment that fosters growth and teaches grit, the child learns to persist. The more grit a child has, the more the child can handle a rigorous academic setting, which they will see in honors and AP high school courses and also at the college level. Grit breaks down learning barriers and allows a child to flourish academically.”

What are three key issues you would focus on if re-elected?

“1. Call upon existing policy regarding community involvement in order to create an active and strong parent advocacy subcommittee to the Board. Clear lines of communication from the Board to all stakeholders is key to an effectively run school district. Parent advocacy plays an important role in this chain of communication. The parents of Collingswood need an opportunity to express opinions and concerns, and to know that they will not only be heard, but that action will be taken.

“2. Review special education policy and revise where needed to ensure true inclusion and best practices are implemented at each of the district schools. This would include examining out-of-district placements and attempting to bring those children back in-district when appropriate.

“3. Increase the level of instructional and behavioral supports for all children, especially for the disadvantaged and underserved. One of many ways to do this is through increasing staffing allocations. This would ensure that support staff would directly support instruction and the social/emotional needs of our children.”

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**Editor’s Note: Candidates who did not respond to our request for information may opt to e-mail answers to our prompts along with a photograph as late as 9 a.m. Tuesday, November 1. We will not update these profiles beyond that time.

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