Parents, pupils upset with transfer of Slackwood Elementary School principal

Despite tearful pleas from students and parents, the Lawrence Township Public Schools Board of Education will transfer Slackwood Elementary School Principal Jay Billy to the Ben Franklin Elementary School, effective July 1.

On May 9, board members voted 5-3 to transfer Billy. He will succeed Ben Franklin Elementary School Principal B.J. Meurer, whose resignation will take effect June 30.

On a motion to transfer Billy, board members Michele Bowes, Dana Drake, Michele King, Vice President Pepper Evans and President Kevin Van Hise voted “yes.” Board members Kelly Edelstein, JoAnn Groeger and Joyce Scott voted “no.” Board member Jon Dauber, whose wife works at Slackwood Elementary School, abstained.

Edelstein and Scott said they voted against the transfer because they did not want to disrupt two schools by moving Billy from one building to another, a point that was made by several parents prior to the vote.

“I see it as Slackwood being a training ground for principals, sink or swim,” said Terri Fox, a Slackwood parent. “Taking a resource from Slackwood and giving it to Ben Franklin is unacceptable. The decision is disruptive. Period.”

Fox said a new principal for Slackwood may or may not have the skills Billy possesses.

Acting Superintendent of Schools Andrew Zuckerman told the parents, students and teachers at the meeting that transferring Billy from one school to another was a difficult decision. Both schools enroll pupils in pre-kindergarten to third grade.

“I believe the decision has been made in the best interests of the school district as a whole,” Zuckerman said. “One of the reasons is that Ben Franklin has the third largest special education population in the district.”

Some special education students who live in Lawrence Township are sent to private schools outside the district and efforts are being made to bring them back into the district, Zuckerman said, adding that Billy has extensive experience in special education.

According to the superintendent, similar concerns were expressed seven years ago at Slackwood when then-Principal Patricia Wendell retired. At that time, parents and children were worried about Billy’s qualifications as the outgoing principal’s replacement.

Today, Billy has not only continued the work begun by Wendell, he has enhanced it, Zuckerman said. He said he would work with the PTO and Billy to “find the best person to lead the building.”

Parents and students listened quietly, but made their feelings known when the meeting was opened for public comment. Many of the speakers were in tears as they spoke emotionally about Billy’s impact on the school.

Chris Schafer, the Slackwood PTO president, said the school community was “heartbroken and frustrated” because a “beloved leader” is being “ripped from our school.” Billy worked to create a special culture at Slackwood and it did not happen overnight, she said.

Children beg to go to Billy’s office just to be around him, and to uproot him is to disrupt the school’s culture, Schafer said. She said Billy is a strong leader and said it would make more sense to let him help select a new principal for Ben Franklin.

Bailey Schafer, Chris Schafer’s daughter, said she and her schoolmates were sad Billy was being transferred and said it was “not fair” to take away their principal.

Lawrence High School freshman Olivia Szela told the school board that when she was a student at Slackwood she was a bully. It was through working with Wendell, and then Billy, that helped her to overcome it, she said.

“They made me what I am today. Maybe I was a bully, but now I am not a bully. Mr. Billy made me into a pretty good person,” Olivia said.

Slackwood teacher Pam DeRiso said Billy understands the importance of connecting with children. He serves as a role model for children who do not have a father figure while also being supportive of the teachers every day, she said.

“We heard you loud and clear,” Van Hise said. The school board does not have the ability to think about one school building over another, because “they are all our buildings,” he said.

Based on their remarks, Van Hise said, the speakers reaffirmed the “very high bar” that has been set for a Slackwood principal. Billy filled Wendell’s shoes and now the board has to replicate that feat, he said.

“You have been heard,” Van Hise said.