In an evening that had been set aside for the recognition of Collingswood Teachers of the Year and the achievements of their students, the Board of Education instead heard a succession of testimonials in defense of boys' high school basketball coach Joseph McLoughlin.
The first and most inflammatory remarks were made by Collingswood resident Blackwell Albertson, the father of a developmentally disabled student who served as a water boy to the Panther basketball team.
Albertson alleged explicitly that McLoughlin was to be dismissed because he "would not follow the directives of this administration that his basketball team should reflect the complexion of the color of the skin of this town."
When asked to elaborate on what he meant in an interview after the meeting, he clarified, "Caucasian," and added, "the coach has it documented. It's on tape."
(Through Albertson, Collingswood Patch invited McLoughlin to confirm the existence of any such tapes, but did not receive an immediate response.)
"Racism is alive and well in the administration of ," Albertson later told news cameras from NBC-10. "It angers me mightily."
After Albertson's remarks, someone removed the microphone he had used for the public comment session. It was not replaced until Morris Smith, a Collingswood parent and attorney, asked that it be returned and re-activated.
Smith spoke later in the public comment session, imploring the board to reconsider its decision.
"Our staff may or may not know of all the repercussions that come with this," he said. Smith added that his own high school athletic director "at a rival high school" apologized to him as an adult, confessing that he had been directed in the 1970s "to keep kids from Lawnside off the team."
"It’s easy to take racial questions and concerns about racial issues and say that’s not really what it is," Smith said. "It’s important that you ask the hard questions."
After the meeting, Superintendent Scott Oswald said that he was sympathetic to the outpouring of support for McLoughlin, but he called the allegations of bias "disappointing."
"I find it interesting that this is an issue with basketball, when all these kids play all other sports," he said. "I have not heard [these allegations of racism] before tonight, until his position was threatened."
Oswald, who described the coach as "a great guy," and reminded reporters that McLoughlin was also a teacher of the year in 2010, said "I don't even think Joe would deny that I was his No. 1 fan."
In the end, however, Oswald said that the responsibility for making the choice not to re-hire McLoughlin came from no other authority than himself. Asked whether the decision was performance-related, Oswald said, "His win-loss record "is meaningless to me."
"My recommendation is based on what I witnessed," Oswald said, adding that he had "enough concerns" about McLaughlin's "handling of situations," that he notified the coach of his intentions to move on last Wednesday.
Eventually the agenda item was tabled for future discussion, at which time board President James Hatzell publicly backed his superintendent's play.
"First and foremost, as board members, we should not be getting involved in the day-to-day operations of making decisions," Hatzell said.
"I personally, and the board as a whole, generally places great weight in Dr. Oswald's recommendations, and this is a rarity, to be quite honest with you," he said.
"We'll put a great effort over the next month into getting the right decision here, and I don't know what that will be."
Did you or your kids play for Joseph McLoughlin? Contact Matt Skoufalos at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.