It felt less like a school board meeting and more like the closing moments of It’s a Wonderful Life, but when it was all over, there was no happy ending for Collingswood High School (CHS) boys' basketball coach Joseph McLoughlin or any of his numerous supporters.
By the end of its meeting Monday night, the had a room of constituents crying out, “Shame on you,” while NBC-10 camera crews waited on the steps of to interview the principal speakers.
The board unanimously approved its roster of high school athletic coaches for 2012-13, and for the first time in years, McLoughlin’s name was not on the list.
To the nearly 100 people gathered, that was the most important item approved on an agenda that also included the ratification of a three-year collective bargaining agreement between the district and its teachers, a new math curriculum, and the transfer of an $100,000 anticipated surplus into its year-end capital reserves.
The gesture was by no means lost on the long-time coach, a veteran special education teacher who listened, often brimming with emotion, as the people whose lives he has touched came forth in defense of him.
“It feels great,” said McLoughlin, the winningest coach in Collingswood boys' basketball program. “My former players, parents, everyone—we’re a Collingswood basketball family. You can see the love that we have.”
“As an educator, that’s what it’s about for me,” he added.
Amid the warmth, however, were numerous, vague and ugly allegations of biased mistreatment of Collingswood students, either by CHS administrators or at their direction. .
According to Joe Betley, solicitor for the , the allegations were serious enough—accompanied by blind threats—that he recommended that the board hire an independent investigator to look into them.
“There are anonymous letters, tapes of things that were said 13 years ago,” Betley said. “These allegations are very serious … reputations that are being sullied. Let’s get to the facts.”
Betley’s recommendation, which the board approved, was to hire Haddonfield Borough Commissioner Edward Borden to investigate the claims at a rate of $250 per hour for a maximum of 40 hours.
Dennis Young, McLoughlin’s attorney, called the decision unnecessary.
“You decided to hire an investigator for a decision that you just made,” Young said. “It makes no sense.”
Out in the open
Earlier in the evening, Young had handed the board a letter waiving McLoughlin’s right to privacy in the matter of his non-renewal, and invited them to discuss, in an open forum, their reasons for removing the coach.
“Whatever that discussion reveals, I will avail myself and Joe will avail himself to answer any question that comes up so that this board is in a fair position to make a decision,” Young said.
“At the end of the day, Joe wants to coach basketball for Collingswood High School next year.”
At the advice of solicitor Betley, the board did not honor this request. Members convened a closed session for about 15 minutes before emerging to approve unanimously the list of 2012-13 coaches as written in the agenda.
According to that document, McLoughlin will be replaced next year by Arcadia University men’s basketball coach .
After the meeting, board president James Hatzell said “it’s utter nonsense” that the decision to replace McLoughlin “had anything to do with who was played on the court.”
“For anybody to suggest that our board would allow such a decision to be made on race, I find utterly offensive,” Hatzell said. “There were employee-employer issues.”
Hatzell said that the decision to not renew McLoughlin’s contract “admittedly put us in a tough situation with the public,” but he also said that he understood the outpouring of support for the coach.
“I think they love Joe and Joe made a mark on their children, and they have every right to do this,” he said. “I have nothing to say against him as a man.”
Allegations, accusations and blame
Superintendent Scott Oswald, who issued the recommendation not to retain McLoughlin as coach, spoke briefly at the meeting about how he was personally hurt by the allegations that he or the board are racist.
Oswald talked about donating $25,000 of his own money in scholarships to minority students at CHS “who had life’s deck stacked against [them],” and paying out-of-pocket to send kids on the senior trip who might not otherwise have been able to afford it.
“And last month and tonight, in front of a well-orchestrated meeting of supporters, that was all swept away by people who didn’t have all the facts,” Oswald said.
Even as he spoke, the crowd murmured, “no…no…nobody was saying it was you.”
Yet even if they didn’t blame him in their accusations, other guests at the meeting took Oswald to task directly for his decision to remove the coach.
Leslie Simone-Jackson, whose son played on the CHS basketball team, said that after she heard some of the inflammatory recordings, she was moved to contact Oswald to talk about “what we had to do to bring more diversity into Collingswood.
“What was more discouraging was to listen to those tapes and then hear that you knew what was going on,” Simone-Jackson said.
“Joe McLoughlin was a bridge to that diversity,” she said. “You asked how we were going to make others of different ethnicities feel comfortable here. He’s one of those ways.”
Collingswood alumnus Julian Welsh-White tried to put his experience into perspective for board members.
“Maybe there are some people in the audience asking why there’s no minorities on the board,” Welsh-White said. “Maybe it’s because you’re all the best. Joe McLoughlin takes the same approach.”
Camden High School girls’ basketball coach Paul Turcotte, who served as an assistant under McLoughlin, talked about how the coach's agenda was always character-driven.
Practices on Martin Luther King Day featured guest speakers instead of drills, and everyone from the top scorer to the bench-warmers participated in food drives for needy families.
“I started jotting things down to remember about my tenure with McLoughlin,” Turcotte said. “Surprisingly, none of them were from the basketball court.”
Resident Dan Swinehart tried to appeal to the board individually by emphasizing his personal connection to each of them.
“I’m close with David [Routzahn],” he said. “I coach with Steve [Rydzewski]. Lisa [Soulos] did work on our house. Fiona [Henry] was my daughter’s tutor.”
Gerry Matthews, who coaches men’s basketball at Richard Stockton College, told the board, “Your town needs [McLoughlin] to keep moving forward.
“I don’t know your town. I don’t live here,” Matthews said. “This is your town. Embrace your town. Your town is here telling you what they think.”