Oak Bluffs School principal resigns

On Sunday, Oak Bluffs School principal Laury Binney caught superintendent of schools James Weiss and school committee members off-guard with a June 26 email announcing his resignation.

“It is quite important that you understand I resign my position for personal reasons,” Mr. Binney wrote. His email hinted at friction with school personnel.

Mr. Binney requested that his resignation be contingent on Mr. Weiss’s appointment of someone to replace him sometime in mid-September to late October.

“I told Dr. Weiss there is no way I’d leave before school begins, because I really, really have to see the kids in September and say goodbye; it means too much to me,” Mr. Binney said in a phone call Tuesday. “And I told him I’d stay on as long as it takes to find a new principal.”

Since there isn’t much time to find someone between now and September, Mr. Weiss said going through a search process is not a good short-term option.

“I could essentially appoint someone if I felt that was the best row to hoe, but right now I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” he told The Times in a phone conversation on Tuesday. “My plan is to talk with some people today and tomorrow, go on vacation, and when I come back, make some decisions.”

School ended on June 24. Mr. Weiss said although Mr. Binney stopped by his office the next day, on Friday, and said he was thinking about resigning, no timeline was discussed.

What led to the principal’s resignation only two days later? Mr. Binney said he made the decision to resign after a meeting with some staff members last Thursday.

“I have had some disagreements, some differences with several staff members around personnel issues that have, I believe, reached a point that they can’t be resolved,” Mr. Binney said. “I believe the issue of fairness and give and take and compromise and so on that usually helps to resolve problems has dissipated.”

Longstanding issues reached a head at the meeting, which made it a tipping point for him, Mr. Binney said.

“I didn’t make this decision based on that particular meeting; I made it based on what I felt were the last several months of continuous disagreement, continuous inability to solve the problems that we had, and that my presence, perhaps, was getting in the way of that,” he explained.

Although his email stated emphatically that his decision had nothing to do with his health, Mr. Binney said another factor that swayed his decision was a serious medical diagnosis he received a few months ago.

“And from what I know about stress and what it does to the body and one’s health, I put the two together over the weekend,” Mr. Binney said. “I met with some friends, I met with my family, I met with my kids, and there seemed to be just a genuine, unanimous consensus that the stress that was being created by what’s happening with me at work just said it’s time to step away. So that’s what I did.”

Mr. Binney’s email to Mr. Weiss also described his 14 years at the Oak Bluffs School as “the happiest and most rewarding professional years of my life,” and the townspeople and parents as “warm, kind, and supportive of our educational mission.”

However, his email went on to say that, “Over the last several years though, I feel that the operational tenor and spirit of the school, from school oversight to committee oversight to teacher performance, to union inquiry, have shifted appreciably.

“I don’t back away from challenges easily, but I am unquestionably resolved at this moment that it is time for new leadership at the Oak Bluffs School,” Mr. Binney wrote.

About 100 people work at Oak Bluffs School. Of those, about 65 are teaching staff, the rest support staff. Mr. Binney also sent out a separate email, on Sunday, to the staff, in which he was more specific about personnel issues.

“Some say to me, ‘It’s not personal’ when concerns are brought to me, yet the feelings and displays of disapproval that I discern say otherwise,” he wrote. “It’s important for you to know that I have tried to listen to these concerns with a focused level of understanding and hopeful resolution; yet at this writing, I am convinced these issues and problems are irreconcilable with me as your principal. With new leadership, perhaps the school can get back to where it once was.”

Despite his frustration, Mr. Binney said on Tuesday he has had great support from most of the staff.

“The people who have issues with me and my management style, I know are a small minority,” he said. “I didn’t feel outnumbered. I just feel like it was a case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease, and I didn’t want to continue to beat my head against the wall with it anymore.”

Two Oak Bluffs teachers who were reached by The Times declined to comment on Mr. Binney’s resignation or any issues with staff.

“Despite my disappointment about how I’m leaving, I want to assure parents and the community that these are personal issues pertaining to me and not the school at large,” Mr. Binney said in a follow-up phone call yesterday. “The school is in great shape, and always will be, considering the great staff we have.”

Had Mr. Binney broached the subject of what he referred to as “irreconcilable” personnel issues when discussing his possible resignation? Mr. Weiss said, “I’m not sure why he said that or what he had in mind. I can tell you that when he spoke to me, he said this was for personal reasons, and he thought it was time to move on, and I agreed with him.”

Since the school committee has no responsibility for personnel, Oak Bluffs School committee chairman Priscilla Sylvia said staff issues would not come up in their discussions.

In the meantime, Ms. Sylvia said, finding a new principal also is not the school committee’s responsibility, and she would be looking to Mr. Weiss for leadership in the wake of Mr. Binney’s very unexpected resignation.

“Mr. Binney has brought some really good things to Oak Bluffs School, such as the responsive classroom program,” Ms. Sylvia said.

Mr. Binney introduced the social curriculum program to Martha’s Vineyard when he first arrived at Oak Bluffs School. It helps students develop skills such as cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.

Over the last few years, in addition to struggling with school budget cutbacks due to Oak Bluff’s revenue shortfalls, Mr. Binney has dealt with some difficult challenges.

In August 2009, following an aerial search for marijuana plants, State Police found 96 plants “in and around” Mr. Binney’s property. His son Spencer, 27, of West Tisbury, admitted the plants were his and agreed to sufficient facts to support a charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. The court continued the matter without a finding for two years.

Mr. Binney said the incident had repercussions for him personally and as an administrator. “Professionally, at my work, I have had difficulty with people who actually are in a governing position, that continue to use that as a wedge against me and refuse to understand that mistakes are made and that responsibilities have been taken for those mistakes,” Mr. Binney said this week. “My son paid a big price, and I paid a big price.”

One parent accosted him about his son’s infraction following a Drug Awareness and Resistance Education (DARE) graduation at the school, earlier in this academic year.

“And I said to her, would you like a pound of flesh? Is that what people want from me?” he said. “I just feel like this is something that sort of hovers around, the elephant in the room, and they won’t let it go away.”

For the last three years, Mr. Binney also dealt with the Oak Bluffs School’s failure to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress targets in Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing.

As a result of a second-year designation of “needing improvement” in 2009, the school received about 30 percent less in Title 1 money as a penalty. Mr. Binney said the school shed the designation in three of the four subgroups last year, however, and preliminary results he has seen from 2010 MCAS tests are “spectacular.”

Looking at the next chapter in his life, Mr. Binney, who is 61, said he will meet in August with the retirement board to see where he stands, but he remains interested in pursuing opportunities in school systems off-Island.

“I still have this unfulfilled desire to go overseas,” Mr. Binney said, adding that he and his wife, Marcy Klapper, who teaches at West Tisbury School, have fond memories of teaching in India for three years in the mid-80′s.

“There’s a conference in February about opportunities for teachers and administrators to work in international schools, that I will most likely go to and see what’s out there,” Mr. Binney said. “If something looks intriguing, that’s maybe what we’ll do.”