Opponents of School Principal Shakeup Plan Victorious—for Now
Faced with hundreds of incensed parents and teachers, the Gloucester Twp. school board changes course on a plan to transfer principals and vice principals.
An outpouring of fury from parents and educators livid at a planned wide-ranging shuffle of principals and vice principals in Gloucester Township schools prevailed Monday.
After hearing two hours of angry comments from teachers and parents about the proposed rearrangement of school administrators midyear and with short notice, the school board of the K-8 district curtailed most of the changes.
Instead, the board approved:
- Hiring Patrick McCarthy as principal of Erial Elementary (rather than Union Valley, as was planned)
- Hiring Andrea Stubbs as principal of Blackwood Elementary (as was planned)
- Hiring Aaron Rose as principal of Loring-Flemming Elementary (as was planned)
- Keeping Tracy Elwell as principal of Union Valley (instead of moving her to Erial Elementary)
- Keeping Robert Holmes as assistant principal of Lilley Elementary (instead of moving him to Union Valley)
- Keeping Rebecca Tiernan as assistant principal of Chews Elementary (instead of moving her to Lilley Elementary)
Emotions—from piercing sobs to angry yelling to rousing words of support and, finally, yells of “thank you!”—punctuated the standing-room-only Gloucester Township school board meeting.
One by one, parents and teachers stood to protest a domino situation that would have seen several principals and vice principals transferred to other schools in mid-February. The school board had three administrator positions to fill, but planned a major upheaval affecting six schools that drew accusations of treating staff like “pawns.” Several of the administrators neither requested nor wanted to change schools, according to comments.
Most galling, opponents said, were plans to make the moves in the next few weeks instead of waiting until summer.
“We couldn’t fathom why you would move principals and assistants from building to building, midyear, like pawns on a chessboard,” Lisa Cowne, Erial resident and Union Valley third-grade teacher, said of teachers’ reaction when they first heard of the school district’s plan.
“Unlike a chess game, however, you’re not considering the layout of the board or the ramifications of your moves. … Your proposed moves are random, chaotic and careless.”
Janet Schuck, a Blackwood resident and Lilley Elementary kindergarten teacher, said sudden turnover harms student achievement.
“Are you putting our students’ best interests at heart?” Schuck asked, holding back tears but unable to stop her voice from breaking. “What valid reasons do you have for moving principals and vice principals around needlessly? I could fully understand if you were simply filling a vacant position, but you’re not.
“I feel we deserve clear, straightforward answers from all of you, not ones that are sugarcoated and made to make it seem like these decisions are in the best interest of everyone involved because we both know they’re not.”
Board members and Interim Superintendent John Bilodeau defended the planned changes at several points, but were often shouted down or challenged by audience members unsatisfied with the explanations.
“We have four Title I schools. We have the State of New Jersey that reminds me constantly how poor the test results are in those schools,” Bilodeau said. “I wanted to strengthen those schools by virtue of these moves tonight—obviously, not popular ones.”
Board changes direction, for now
The groundswell of comments, with not a single one in support of the changes, eventually prompted the school board to go into executive session to discuss the administrative shuffle plans. The school board kept the audience in anticipation when it returned a half-hour later, going through its agenda in order.
A stillness completely absent from the rest of the meeting settled over the Mullen Middle School library as the staff change vote neared. Board President William Collins prefaced the announcement with a reassurance that the school board wanted to and did listen to constituents.
“You’ve assured us how much you care and how much the people in your schools mean, and once again, I’ll state that the people sitting up here care wholeheartedly about your schools and about your students and about the people who work there,” Collins said.
“We’re all up here doing this for the right reasons.”
After the board made changes to its plan, the room exploded into cheers and hugs. Tracy Elwell, who will stay on as Union Valley principal, embraced her mom before parents and teachers started hugging her in congratulations. Other teachers high-fived each other or jumped in excitement.
“The board heard the staff, they heard parents,” Bilodeau said after the meeting. “I think their primary concern was timing. One person spoke about having some kind of compromise and I think it struck a chord.”
But parents and teachers shouldn’t necessarily expect school principals and vice principals to remain as-is for the next school year.
“It will be discussed again, yes,” Bilodeau said of possible administrator transfers after the school year ends.
Gloucester Township Education Association President Angel McDermott said she was pleased the board listened to parents and faculty on the timing of the transfers.
“I think if this comes up at the end of the year, there will be none of this,” McDermott said, gesturing to the room that hosted the heated meeting. “You bring this up and vote on it on May so the kids have time to say goodbye and get closure, the staff has time to meet the person and the administrator has time to get acclimated over the summer.
“If you time it that way, everyone starts fresh on day one.”
Stay with Gloucester Township Patch this week as we bring you more from the board meeting, including an update on contract negotiations. Sign up to receive our daily news digest so you don’t miss anything.