Prin­ci­pal re­signs in Lawrence, caus­ing lead­er­ship cri­sis

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - By Su­laiman Ab­dur-Rah­man Su­laiman@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @sab­durr on Twit­ter

LAWRENCE » The im­mi­nent res­ig­na­tion of Prin­ci­pal Wil­liam B.J. Meurer of Ben Fran­klin Ele­men­tary has plunged the Lawrence Town­ship Pub­lic Schools dis­trict into an ad­min­is­tra­tive staff cri­sis, with nearby Slack­wood School be­ing rocked and shaken to the core with lead­er­ship un­cer­tainty.

“While I have en­joyed be­ing the prin­ci­pal of Ben Fran­klin and work­ing with the chil­dren, teach­ers, and fam­i­lies here,” Meurer said Thurs­day in an emailed state­ment, “I am pur­su­ing other pro­fes­sional op­por­tu­ni­ties and will re­mem­ber my time with the Ben Fran­klin com­mu­nity pos­i­tively.”

Meurer’s res­ig­na­tion has been ac­cepted by the Lawrence Town­ship Board of Ed­u­ca­tion and takes effect June 30. On July 1, he will be suc­ceeded by the uber-pop­u­lar Jay Billy.

Billy over the last seven years has served as prin­ci­pal of Slack­wood Ele­men­tary and is cred­ited with im­prov­ing the school’s char­ac­ter and cli­mate. But his seven-year run at the fa­cil­ity will come to an end this sum­mer when he of­fi­cially be­comes prin­ci­pal of Ben Fran­klin Ele­men­tary, a higher-per­form­ing school with more eco­nom­i­cally ad­van­taged stu­dents.

With Meurer quit­ting for per­sonal rea­sons and cre­at­ing a Ben Fran­klin lead­er­ship va­cancy, Lawrence Town­ship Act­ing Su­per­in­ten­dent of Schools Andrew Zuck­er­man de­cided to name Jay Billy as Meurer’s suc­ces­sor and im­me­di­ately be­gan a process of search­ing for a new prin­ci­pal to lead Slack­wood.

“As the ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple here are al­ready aware that it has been my rec­om­men­da­tion for Jay Billy to be­come the prin­ci­pal of Ben Fran­klin start­ing July 1, 2018,” Zuck­er­man said at a packed school board meet­ing May 9. “It is a very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion. How­ever, I be­lieve that this de­ci­sion has been made in the best in­ter­ests of the dis­trict as a whole.”

Par­ents, teach­ers and stu­dents of the Slack­wood com­mu­nity dis­agree with Zuck­er­man’s as­sess­ment.

Chris­tine Schafer of Mayflower Av­enue, pres­i­dent of the Slack­wood PTO, told the Lawrence Board of Ed­u­ca­tion she was “frustrated at the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing our beloved leader ripped from our school. We feel as if our feel­ings haven’t been con­sid­ered and with­out you truly re­al­iz­ing the im­pact it will have on the stu­dents, on our staff and the fam­i­lies of Slack­wood.”

Schafer, a par­ent of two Slack­wood stu­dents, blasted the dis­trict for gut­ting Slack­wood’s lead­er­ship.

“We un­der­stand Ben Fran­klin needs fix­ing and needs a strong leader, but at our ex­pense?” she said in pub­lic com­ments at last week’s school board meet­ing. “Please don’t say that it’s the best de­ci­sion for the dis­trict be­cause it sim­ply isn’t true be­cause Slack­wood is a part of the dis­trict, and it cer­tainly is not the best de­ci­sion for us.”

Other up­set par­ents at the May 9 board meet­ing praised Prin­ci­pal Billy and made com­ments such as, “It’s not fair for him to be up­rooted from his home and placed else­where.”

Slack­wood stu­dents ex­pressed their feel­ings at the school board meet­ing, too, with one stu­dent ad­mon­ish­ing Zuck­er­man and the nine­mem­ber Lawrence Board of Ed­u­ca­tion in no un­cer­tain terms.

“Why do you have to take the best prin­ci­pal in the world away from us?” the stu­dent said. “Can’t you find a dif­fer­ent one for Ben Fran­klin? I mean, think about it, you are tak­ing our prin­ci­pal away from us. How would you feel if some­one did that to your school?”

“Mr. Billy teaches us to be bet­ter peo­ple,” the stu­dent added, “but I feel that if you take him away, you will take the hap­pi­ness away from Slack­wood.” school board meet­ing telling Slack­wood par­ents that their con­cerns did not fall of deaf ears.

“Just the im­pas­sioned pleas that ev­ery­one here has come out, we have heard you loud and clear,” he said. “Frankly, you have not told us any­thing that we don’t al­ready know. The abil­ity to find a can­di­date for Ben Fran­klin, the eas­i­est part was say­ing that Jay would be the per­fect in­di­vid­ual for that be­cause he would be the per­fect in­di­vid­ual for any­where.”

“Un­for­tu­nately for us that sit up here, we don’t have the abil­ity to think of things in terms of our build­ing and the other build­ing or that build­ing,” Van Hise added, “be­cause for us that sit up here, they are all our build­ings and they’re all our stu­dents, and we are tasked and charged with look­ing at the to­tal­ity of the dis­trict and ev­ery stu­dent in the dis­trict. And what you have done tonight, at least to me, is reaf­firm the amaz­ingly high bar that Jay has set for his re­place­ment, and that is on us to find that.”

With Billy be­ing shipped off to Ben Fran­klin, the school board is ac­tively search­ing for a new prin­ci­pal to lead Slack­wood.

“We have had sev­eral ex­cel­lent can­di­dates that have al­ready sub­mit­ted,” Van Hise said, “and that search con­tin­ues, and that is on us, and that is not some­thing that we do lightly.”

While school of­fi­cials have talked ex­ten­sively about the mer­its of trans­fer­ring Billy, they have been largely tightlipped about Meurer’s im­mi­nent de­par­ture.

“Mr. Meurer ten­dered his let­ter of res­ig­na­tion for per­sonal rea­sons and in­di­cated that he would not be con­tin­u­ing with the Dis­trict past the end of this school year,” Van Hise said Thurs­day in an email to The Tren­to­nian. “As

with any let­ter of res­ig­na­tion or re­tire­ment, we al­ways in­clude ac­cep­tance on our Board agenda for for­mal ac­tion — which we did here at our April 25 meet­ing. Be­yond that, we wish Mr. Meurer well in all of his fu­ture en­deav­ors and thank him for his con­tri­bu­tions to both Ben Fran­klin and our Dis­trict.”

Ed­u­ca­tional in­equity

Ben Fran­klin and Slack­wood both have racially di­verse stu­dent bod­ies in grades pre-kinder­garten through three, but Slack­wood has sig­nif­i­cantly more eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents, data show.

Of the 288 stu­dents en­rolled at Slack­wood in the 2016-17 schoolyear, 40 per­cent of them were eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged com­pared with 13 per­cent of Ben Fran­klin’s 395 stu­dents be­ing eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged, ac­cord­ing to de­mo­graphic data re­ported to the New Jersey Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion.

Data show Ben Fran­klin stu­dents, on av­er­age, per­form at a higher aca­demic level than Slack­wood stu­dents. For ex­am­ple, Ben Fran­klin third-graders tak­ing the spring 2017 PARCC math as­sess­ment had 41.2 per­cent of stu­dents meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and 20 per­cent ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions com­pared with 40 per­cent of Slack­wood third-graders meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and 11.3 per­cent ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions on the same test.

Fur­ther­more, Ben Fran­klin third-graders tak­ing the English lan­guage arts por­tion of the spring 2017 PARCC as­sess­ment had 64.7 per­cent of stu­dents meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and 7.1 per­cent ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions com­pared with 39.7 per­cent of Slack­wood third-graders meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and 3.8 per­cent ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions on the same test.

Slack­wood’s ed­u­ca­tional pro­fes­sion­als have col­lec­tively voiced con­cerns over how Jay Billy’s trans­fer to Ben Fran­klin Ele­men­tary has the po­ten­tial to neg­a­tively im­pact stu­dent per­for­mance at Slack­wood.

Long­time Slack­wood teacher Pamela Ann DeRiso, speak­ing on be­half of her co-work­ers, read a joint state­ment at the May 9 school board meet­ing ac­knowl­edg­ing Billy’s unique strengths as the prover­bial cap­tain of the Slack­wood ship.

“He sup­ports the teach­ers ev­ery step of the way, he will con­tinue to come into our class­rooms mul­ti­ple times a day, and he con­tin­ues to fight for our stu­dents’ right to an ex­em­plary ed­u­ca­tion,” DeRiso said of Billy, read­ing from the joint state­ment. She added the loss of Billy’s pres­ence at Slack­wood “dur­ing such a tem­pest of up­heaval could prove detri­men­tal to the suc­cess of our stu­dents.”

The up­shot

Out­go­ing Slack­wood Prin­ci­pal Jay Billy has di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence with spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion, which is one of the rea­sons Act­ing Su­per­in­ten­dent Zuck­er­man cited for trans­fer­ring Billy to Ben Fran­klin, which has a larger spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pop­u­la­tion than Slack­wood.

Zuck­er­man spoke with em­pa­thy, telling the con­cerned par­ents that he re­al­izes the trans­fer “is a very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion and a very emo­tional de­ci­sion for the stu­dents, for the par­ents, for the teach­ers, and I do apol­o­gize about that. I don’t mean to bring any­body’s emo­tions into the fore­front. How­ever, in look­ing at what’s in the best in­ter­ests of the en­tire dis­trict, I truly feel that this is the best in­ter­ests of the en­tire dis­trict.”

Billy was al­legedly in­volved in an April 24 phys­i­cal al­ter­ca­tion with a Slack­wood stu­dent in which the 9-year-old girl suf­fered bruises to her arm, a par­ent told The Tren­to­nian, adding the New Jersey Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies or DCF was called to in­ves­ti­gate the al­leged in­ci­dent.

“Safe­guard­ing the con­fi­den­tial­ity of clients is a pri­or­ity for the depart­ment,” a DCF spokesper­son said in an email. “DCF pol­icy and le­gal re­quire­ments dic­tate that we can­not con­firm or deny the oc­cur­rence of any in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

The Tren­to­nian asked Zuck­er­man via email whether a Slack­wood al­ter­ca­tion be­tween Billy and a stu­dent had any­thing to do with Billy’s trans­fer to an­other school. The act­ing su­per­in­ten­dent did not ad­dress that part of the email.

Zuck­er­man in his emailed re­sponse said the de­ci­sion to trans­fer Billy to Ben Fran­klin “was made be­cause his ex­pe­ri­ences and skills as a leader are in di­rect align­ment with the needs of the school. We are work­ing with the Slack­wood staff to make sure the Mr. Billy’s re­place­ment will con­tinue the great work that is cur­rently be­ing done at Slack­wood School.”

School of­fi­cials in­sist there is no mys­tique be­hind Meurer’s pend­ing res­ig­na­tion.

“There is noth­ing be­hind Mr. Meurer’s res­ig­na­tion,” Zuck­er­man said Thurs­day via email. “He re­signed for per­sonal rea­sons.”

Meurer has worked as a New Jersey pub­lic ed­u­ca­tor since 2000 and had an an­nual salary of about $127,000 last year. Billy has been a New Jersey pub­lic ed­u­ca­tor since 1992 and will col­lect an an­nual salary of nearly $161,000 for the 201819 schoolyear pend­ing the out­come of ne­go­ti­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic records.

SUB­MIT­TED PHO­TOS

Lawrence school board up­roots pop­u­lar Slack­wood Ele­men­tary Prin­ci­pal Jay Billy (left) to re­place the re­sign­ing Ben Fran­klin Prin­ci­pal Wil­liam Meurer (right) ef­fec­tive July 1.

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