Principal resigns in Lawrence, causing leadership crisis
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.”
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.”
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.
Lawrence school board uproots popular Slackwood Elementary Principal Jay Billy (left) to replace the resigning Ben Franklin Principal William Meurer (right) effective July 1.