Why I’m Reneging District PR Permission for My Kids (And Why You May Want to do the Same)

A few times a week I encounter my kids’ faces on the Collingswood School District Facebook page and Twitter feed. The images don’t commemorate anything my kids have done, per say, but instead are just candid shots of their school day. I don’t know how long the district has maintained social media accounts, but I noticed when these posts began to pick up in earnest not long ago.

Mostly I noticed because back at the February 2017 Board of Ed meeting, the Collingswood Educational Advocacy Group (CEAG) presented a proposal for a more comprehensive communication plan. This plan included suggestions such as a Superintendent Advisory Council, Town Hall style meetings with the public, and more reader-friendly BOE meeting minutes and agendas. The CEAG asserted then and continued to maintain that this plan would help the district more meaningfully connect with caregivers and the community at large.

 

Maybe, I thought, the tweets and posts were a response to our communication plan (though we were never given any official response to our detailed ten-page proposal). While the tweets were not exactly what we were looking for, perhaps, I thought, they were a step in the right direction. It was distressing then to learn via a public records request that rather than using these posts to communicate, the tweets blitz is a calculated attempt to quash legitimate community discussions on issues that matter.

 

In an April 6, 2017 missive to staff, Superintendent Scott Oswald exhorts as part of “routine, monthly business” to “[k]eep those tweets coming.” After asserting that the CEAG has “no idea what real educational advocates look like,” the Superintendent tells his employees to provide “additional tweets to bury them deeper.” What is buried here is the community–parents, alums, PTA members, etc. What is used as the means of asphyxiation are images of our children.

What is buried here is the community–parents, alums, PTA members, etc. What is used as the means of asphyxiation are images of our children.

 

It gives one pause, knowing that our district leader uses tweets as a weapon against a parent/community organization. And this narrative of social media warfare reverberates through the OPRA attained material. The Superintendent enlists district employees to act as moles, charged with infiltrating the CEAG facebook group. Volleys of screenshots are shared.

 

In a February 2018 email, leading up to a Bond Referendum vote, Oaklyn representative to the Collingswood BOE William Stauts and the Superintendent discuss plans to have “a Board member who could troll the facebook posts each night.”


All this district ordered espionage is not only sad but also unnecessary. CEAG members are perennial attendants at BOE meetings and until lately the questions expressed in those social media posts would be asked aloud during public comment.

All this district ordered espionage is not only sad but also unnecessary.

As of January 2018 though, questions are no longer permissible during public participation sections of the school board meetings. Only question-free statements are now permitted. Is this what the Superintendent meant when he promised via email to “discuss with the Board how to minimize the distraction at meetings,” the distraction of interacting with the public?

A little over a month before the stadium vote, the Superintendent admitted he didn’t “know how to get the people with non-school aged students” yet those same neighbors he didn’t know how to reach found him and delivered a petition protesting their lack of involvement in a plan impacting the space right in their backyards.

Though he opined that “the Borough has a FT PR person,” in fact the district is alloted four pages in The Town Crier, the Borough produced publication that is mailed to all residents and also available online in PDF format. In the months before the stadium vote, the district used their four pages in the same way the tweets are used, as relentless PR rather than providing information about the proposal.

In the months before the stadium vote, the district used their four pages in the same way the tweets are used, as relentless PR rather than providing information about the proposal.

Glitches in communication are understandable and inevitable. But it seems for the Collingswood school district; the issue is not so much problems with communication as resistance to communication. The Superintendent discourages the Board “from being swayed by a bunch of people who don’t know the facts, don’t have anywhere near all of the information they need (and as members of the public, cannot have access to that information).” If the board wants to engage in community conversations about grade levels schools, for instance, the Superintendent says he “will order the Kevlar.”

 

Imagine if the channels of communication were open wide enough so we didn’t have to have future contentious elections or divisive issues such as the MOA fiasco.

Which takes me back to those tweets of my kids. Will revoking PR permission change how the district communicates? Of course not. But I won’t be part of any plan to “bury us deeper” as the CEAG continues to ask district leadership to engage in an open and meaningful way with the community. It is my sincerely held belief that the people of Collingswood can handle more intelligent, in-depth conversation than a quick tweet that provokes a “hey, look, it’s my kid” response.

Imagine if we had meetings similar to Cherry Hill’s “Saturday Coffee with the Superintendent” where the public can have informal in-person discussions.

Imagine if the channels of communication were open wide enough so we didn’t have to have future contentious elections or divisive issues such as the MOA fiasco.

It is just a gesture, revoking PR permission, but I am doing it because I believe the district should not think of themselves as at war with parents or the community, and our children should not be the ammunition in that needless war. Social media can be a valuable tool of engagement as can other avenues of communication. But nothing is possible without the willingness to keep an open mind and really listen.

 

 

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Kate D

Executive Director Kate Delany is the author of two books of poetry—Reading Darwin (Poets Corner Press) and Ditching (Aldrich Press). Her prose and poetry have appeared in many magazines and journals, such as Art Times, Barrelhouse, Jabberwock Review, Room and Poetry Quarterly. She holds a MA in English from Rutgers-Camden and a BA in English, as well as BA in Art History, from Chestnut Hill College. Kate has over a decade’s worth of experience teaching college English, both literature and writing to diverse student populations. A resident of Collingswood since 2007 and the parent of two Collingswood public school students, Kate is a member of Sustainable Collingswood and leads the Collingswood Chicken Uprising. She is the school liaison for the Collingswood Community Habitat Project, the parent coordinator of the Garfield Green Team and the Membership Chair of the Garfield Elementary PTA. In writing, in the classroom and via community organizing, Kate is passionate about facilitating conversations that matter and advocating for sustainability and social justice.

One thought on “Why I’m Reneging District PR Permission for My Kids (And Why You May Want to do the Same)

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    April 10, 2018 at 4:40 pm
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    Sad to break it to you but the Cherry Hill Coffee with the Superintendent is merely the school districts PR push to promote the Bond Referendum in Oct. to the tune of >$150M for physical school repairs. The discussions are one sided and not productive. We’re fighting the same uphill battle (via our advocacy group Cherry Hill ACTS) against poor communication and push back to requests for transparency and collaboration.

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