Atlantic City Superintendent of Schools Fredrick P. Nickles retired June 30 after a sometimes tumultuous 12 years heading the district.
Q: You came into Atlantic City schools when they were on the verge of a state takeover and had a state monitor. Why did you want the job?
A: (Then-Mayor) Jim Whelan came to me because I was appointed by Gov. (Christie) Whitman as chairman of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and (Whelan) said: “Look, Fred, there have been seven superintendents in Atlantic City in five years, and we need somebody to take over the reins and would you be interested?” So I told him I would and he said, “I’ll talk to the board members,” and that was pretty much what led up to me coming in.
Q: So why did you want to do it?
A: It was time for me to leave Egg Harbor Township. I spent 28 years there, everywhere from a teacher, vice principal, principal of the high school, superintendent, and there’s an old adage: “Friends come and go, and enemies accumulate,” and it was time for me to leave. So I was about 48 years of age. I wasn’t prepared to totally retire, but I was ready to leave Egg Harbor Township for the good of the district … rather than me stand in the way because of political issues. … I was prepared to go with an architectural firm called EI Group. I wasn’t really prepared to come back to be superintendent, but Jim Whelan asked me, said there was a need and I did.
Q: What was your strategy in trying to turn the district around? What were your goals?
A: The very first day, Deputy Commissioner of Education John Sherry and the county Superintendent Marty Ney came to my office, and they said the last thing the governor wants to do is take over Atlantic City. (They said) we need to do a couple of things. One, we need to build new schools, and we need to get test scores up. So they more or less gave me my orders on what needed to be done. That was in October. I think by that spring we had approved two bond referendums to build the Sovereign Avenue School as well as the New York Avenue School. We had our budget passed, and we started working on trying to increase test scores.
Q: You make it seem simple, but obviously it’s not. What did it take to do that?
A: Yes, it is not simple. The first thing you have to do is an assessment of the school district, and I was amazed to find out that every school was not doing the same thing. They didn’t have the same textbooks, they didn’t have the same curriculum. And then you do a research analysis and find out that about 25 percent of our students transfer inside the district to different schools. But students weren’t receiving the same curriculum at the different schools. So the first thing we had to do was devise a curriculum so that every elementary school was exactly the same. Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve been here 12 years. It’s taken 12 years to get this right.
And everyone knows that principals are the most important thing to making change in the school, and I was fortunate enough after about a year and a half to bring Donna Haye in. I worked with Donna in Egg Harbor Township. One of the things I asked her when I interviewed her for the Martin Luther King School, I said, “Donna, how do I sell a blonde Caucasian to a school that is basically over 90 percent minority?”
She said, “Fred, when you put your arms around a child and they know that you love them and you care about them, they don’t care what color you are.” And that is how Donna Haye got into the Atlantic City School District. She raised test scores at the Martin Luther King School and then she became assistant superintendent, and she was basically the architect of our academic change for the school district that has now given us a three-year certification as being a highly performing school district.
Q: You have two new schools opening hopefully in September, and you talked about the need for a new middle school. Why? The schools have been in K-8 format.
A: The middle school is not really my recommendation. It’s the recommendation of board members, principals and community members. And my concern all along with a middle school is if you don’t do it right it could fail just as the Albany Avenue School failed. A true middle school is, you have teams of teachers and you have five teachers to a team, you have an area that is devoted to those teachers, you have a schedule that permits those teachers to be together all day and have a common planning period.
In a true middle school setting, the team of teachers only have those same 125 students throughout the whole day. When they have the planning period, then the parents can come in and meet with the whole team. The students are only out of their pod to go to lunch or to go to special classes. So you eliminate the students from every period being in the hallway and having interaction and disciplinary problems. So my only thought to the Atlantic City School District was this: You can’t take an elementary school and turn it into a middle school. You need to build a true middle school because anything less than that could develop into failure, as was the Albany Avenue School prior to my becoming superintendent. And I had a plan that I shared with the board.
To do a true middle school, you need athletic fields, you need double gyms for boys and girls sports, and my thought was to take the old Martin Luther King School — there is enough property at that site if you tore down that building — and build a new building farther east towards the cross street, and if you are able to work out an agreement with the city to have the Pop Lloyd field, you would be able to build an appropriate middle school and have the athletic facilities to facilitate all the sports programs. That is the verbal plan.
Q: So why don’t you want to stay and help implement it?
A: Well, I’m 64 years old, and in 12 years we built four new schools, we refurbished the Martin Luther King Jr. School and the Uptown School Complex and we added an addition onto the Venice Park School. We have gotten our certification as a highly performing school district. I kind of feel that my work is done. Now that doesn’t mean I’m ready to retire completely from any type of work in education. I think I’ve met the objectives of what I was sent here to do and what I expected to do, but I think it is perhaps time for me to move on. I plan on working at some level in the state or out of the state. I have been asked by a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter if I would do a book about the (Craig) Callaway years. I have all of the tapes there from all of the meetings when he was there. So I’m going to look at all of the options and see what I’m going to do.
Q: Why do you think you were more successful than those before you?
A: I think I probably had a better knowledge of Atlantic City and the politics. I had been an elected official in Egg Harbor Township. I understood the Atlantic City issues. I understood the gaming issues. I served eight years under Gov. Whitman as chairman of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. And, ironically enough, I was the first white guy to integrate Norfolk State College (in Virginia) in 1966. So I had a little bit of knowledge of what an urban community is all about. So I think all of those things gave me the background to be smart enough to know what things politically to get involved with and what things to stay away from.
My goal has always been to do what is best for the children of Atlantic City. Now saying that, a lot of us have a reality of what happens in Atlantic City by reading the newspaper or watching TV. The children in Atlantic City live that reality. They need special attention. The principal at the New York Avenue School, James Knox, has done a great job, but that school has probably been in a lockdown situation at least a half-dozen times. One time I responded when bullets were shot though the third-story window. Another time I responded, and we watched surveillance footage where an individual was shot on the corner, ran to the doors, tried to get in. We were in a lockdown situation, the person who shot him was right out there on the street looking, thinking if he was going to come shoot him again, decided not to and walked down the street.
These children have a special need. There was an incident at the Chelsea Heights School: a fellow who got out of jail was working for the road department, and somebody came up and shot 10 to 20 rounds and killed him on the corner. Our students were in the playground; we had teachers out there. These kids live the reality of being in Atlantic City. And in my opinion, they need special treatment to understand what their opportunities are in the future, and I think that is one of the things I think we need to present to them.
Q: Schools are not supposed to be political, but you have been involved in politics. Do you think it has been an advantage?
A: Yes. Whenever you run a school district with 1,127 employees and a budget of $182 million, you have people like (former City Council President) Craig Callaway and his organization trying to take over control. That is nothing but politics if you can control who gets the jobs. If you can control who gets the contracts, you know, that makes you, I guess, the most important person in the city, and that is exactly what Craig Callaway and his organization and his board members attempted to do.
Q: Why didn’t they succeed?
A: They didn’t succeed because a few of us fought them. At that time, there were 12 members on the board and there was a 6-6 split vote. And one year I was not renewed for a new contract because of the 6-6 split. Finally John Devlin, who was an Atlantic City police officer, changed his vote to give me another contract. So technically he was the one that gave me the opportunity to continue fighting the Callaway organization and to get them out of Atlantic City schools.
Now you probably would like to know how we did that. We knew that somehow they were manipulating absentee ballots, but we never understood the whole process. Finally, we were told by an insider how it was done. I contacted the county clerk and asked what can we do. What they did was anybody who legally requested an absentee ballot that year, the county clerk’s office took the county stamp and stamped the envelope so any envelope that came in not with that county seal on it they knew was a fraudulent vote. And that is how we broke the Callaway absentee ballot scam.
Q: How much impact do school boards have on your ability to get things done?
A: The politics is a big issue, but I don’t know if we have any other option. We have to deal with it, and you have to be good enough to be able to handle it. I tell my assistant superintendents and my principals that we get paid a wonderful salary. If we can’t outsmart those who wish to do things contrary to what is best for the school district, then shame on us. So we may have elected school boards, we may have some people who are there for good reasons and some people there for their own personal agendas, but we have to be smarter than those individuals to do what is right.
Q: Speaking of litigation, the district certainly has had large legal bills.
A: I think the Comegno law firm represented us well. I think the Cooper Levenson law firm is doing equally as well. And with as many employees as we have had over the years, one of the hardest things you have to do is make change. In my 12 years here, we have brought charges successfully. And so I personally think what we’ve done to eliminate issues that create problems has been well worth it. At the same time, we’ve had the opportunity to bring new and young people into the school district. We had new and young administrators come in, and those teachers and administrators are the ones who are really responsible for setting the tone of change. So we have been able to make the changes, and that cost money.
Q: You had a couple of big losses, too. The current pension board issue. Was that sick-day buyout a mistake?
A: Well, one of the reasons we were able to make changes in our teacher population was two times prior to this we had a teacher sick-day retirement buyout. Each time it was approved, and we were able to eliminate a lot of older teachers. The last time some of the legislation changed, and it came down to a discussion between John Comegno and Lisa Mooney, who was the business administrator, and she said we don’t think we can do this anymore. He felt we could still do it. The pension board investigated and the result was that they did not give the school district approval to do it and I think it cost about $2.8 million. So two times it worked well for us. The third time the laws were changed it did not work for us, and we had to pay the penalty.
Q: So will you go to Comegno to get paid?
A: That is still in discussion with the board. And of course his company has liability insurance. Our board is looking at the options with our attorneys, but that is not something I can really get into discussion right now.
Q: At the CRDA, you would tell speakers to “be brief, be brilliant or be gone.”
A: That’s my three B’s. My management style is this: I have always been team-oriented, and the one thing I learned from Ronald Reagan is I may not be the smartest guy in the room but I am smart enough to get smart people around me. And that has always been my goal. Now the three B’s came from Arthur Goldberg, who owned Bally’s, and he sat on the CRDA. He’s the one that shared that with me and I asked him if I could use that, and he said yes because there is nothing I resent more than people that will come in for a meeting and will tell you the same thing three times. I understood the first time. I got it. I probably tell people, not to offend them but just to get through at board meetings, or with salespeople who come in. You know, come on, tell me what you have to say; be brief, be brilliant, be gone. I love that phrase.
Q: You have done a lot of other things in your career? What’s been most memorable?
A: One of the first bills I sponsored when I was in the Assembly — I shouldn’t take all the credit for this — was the $2 parking fee that created the funds to eliminate the old bus station and to do the renovations into Atlantic City off the expressway. Now a lot of times we are criticized for that, but I think that was a positive bill.
As the chairman of the board for the CRDA, I was proud of the number of housing units that we have been able to build in Atlantic City. We have certainly changed the look of the inlet. Work still needs to be done. The city is continuing to prosper because of the CRDA, and not everything you do always works out. You look at the baseball stadium, you look at SkateZone, you look at the renovation of Boardwalk Hall. When you look at the different entryways to Atlantic City and when you look at the new convention hall, the Sheraton, then building the retail stores, there was big criticism, but it has turned out to be rather successful. So when you look at the different things you are part of, and even though you took criticism, it’s good to see them flourishing today and doing well.
Q: Your biggest failure?
A: I don’t know. I’ve been fortunate in my life to accomplish many things, and I can’t really think, and I’m sure there is something, but I really can’t think of anything I look back and say I failed at.
Q: Is it just good politics to know you can’t win every time?
A: I think a lot of that comes from being an athlete. Being the first guy to integrate Norfolk State College was quite an experience in itself.
Q: Why did you go there?
A: It was back during the Vietnam War, and I was ready to sign up with the Marine Corps, and my aptitude test was going to give me the ability to become a helicopter pilot. I really wanted to go to college and play football. Neither my mother nor father graduated from high school. My dad went in the war. My grades were average. There was a teacher named Warren Brooks, taught in EHT for many years, seventh- and eighth-grade science. He was still there when I became a teacher, when I became a vice principal and superintendent. I loved the man. He was African American. He went to my aunt, who was also a teacher, and said, “You know, Norfolk State College needs to integrate.” Norfolk State would be willing to offer me a scholarship. So I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Well, his cousin offered to drive me down, and I think another player from Oakcrest (High School). So we went down, and they put us up in a nice black family’s house for the weekend. We leave Norfolk about 6 a.m. in the morning and we stopped at a diner to have breakfast, and we walk in and this guy behind the counter says, “Boys you can sit there, (racial epithet) you get in the back.” I had never experienced that. I was stunned and I said something like, “You go to hell,” which was a big thing for me to use profanity in those days, and we all left. We drove all the way to Salisbury, Md., and got breakfast. And I thought to myself after that, if they are willing to take me for one year, because they knew my goal was to go to the University of Maryland, I guarantee I will come down for a year. So that is how I got to Norfolk State. Because some old guy used a racial slur, and I was offended.
There were issues (at Norfolk). My third week, I was in an English class, I was the only white guy in this English class and nobody would talk to me. This professor sat down in the desk next to me and said: “I know no one is talking to you. You have to understand these kids are from Virginia, North and South Carolina, they’ve never had a white student in their class before in their life, so you have to give them time.”
So when you look back at God’s plan and here I was in 1967 thrown in that reverse situation and here I am today serving as superintendent of schools in a minority school district and been able to make some success, it is amazing how things work that way.
Q: That had an impact on you?
A: It did. That’s why I identify with a lot of these kids in Atlantic City and what they go through. I said earlier, we read about the reality of living in Atlantic City. These kids live the reality of living in Atlantic City.
Contact Diane D’Amico: