The line of people waiting to give former Principal Linda Murphy hugs and wish her well seemed like it would never end.
As tears were shed, the scene felt like a funeral procession. In a way, it was.
The Board of Education was expected to reassign Murphy, the high school principal for seven years and a fixture as a math teacher and vice principal in the district for decades, to be the new principal of Lafayette Learning Center, a preschool.
However, Murphy announced she plans to retire at the end of the 2012-13 school year and was instead appointed as the district's director of human resources and community engagement.
As Monday night moved into Tuesday morning, with the clock at about 12:30 a.m., the Board of Education meeting finally ended after beginning five hours earlier.
Through word-of-mouth, and the power of social media, hundreds of friends, family and co-workers from the school district, area churches and beyond, turned out to that same building (which also serves as the Morris School District's main offices) to protest the decision and to find out just why it was happening.
In the end, Murphy–who also graduated from Morristown High School–would not be reassigned to the preschool, following a three-and-a-half hour closed session between her, her lawyers and the district.
"As my career reaches the next stage it is with great enthusiasm that I have accepted the position of 'Director of Human Resources and Community Engagement,'" Murphy said to the audience in a prepared statement, shortly before 11 p.m. "This is a role that will allow me to help make the schools in the district a place where all children can succeed in an environment where they are treated with dignity, respect and tolerance."
Superintendent Thomas Ficarra also read a prepared statement. "We want to thank Linda Murphy for her leadership at Morristown High School. I recruited Linda seven years ago. I did so because of her natural ability to bring people together and to engage the community. In Linda's seven years as the principal at Morristown High School, she has been instrumental in improving the culture and learning environment of the school."
As a result of that, Ficarra said in his prepared statement, he had asked Murphy to accept a transfer as principal to the preschool.
"However, Ms. Murphy then advised me that she had intended to retire as of June 30, 2013," Ficarra continued. "I would never want to put someone in as principal who was leaving in a year ... it would be in the best interest of the district if we asked Linda to apply her talents across the school district."
Murphy, in her prepared statement, said the role of "Director of Human Resources and Community Engagement" would "allow me to help make the schools in the District a place where all children can succeed in an environment where they are treated with dignity, respect and tolerance."
Although not what some had considered the demotion they had come to the meeting originally for, many still reacted to Ficarra and the BOE negatively.
"I do not accept the solution that you arrived at tonight," Morris Plains resident Charles Lamb said. "Why is she [being] removed? What I heard tonight were all comments as to why she should remain as principal."
"I've known Linda Murphy since the early 70s, as a student, a colleague and as a teacher," said Joanne Belmonte, who taught in the District for 40 years, until 2008. "I'm just confused here. I just don't understand why we can't let Linda finish out her year if she wants to retire in 2013."
Belmonte described a scenario over several years, where each graduating class had a different prinicipal. "I just remember the turmoil before [her] seven years," she said.
"It's a slap in the face," said Samantha Watson, a Morristown resident. "It's political. When a decision is made in an abrupt way, there has to be an agenda. It could have been handled differently."
Kim Pistner, a Morristown resident and active parent in the school district, called Murphy "a great force for Morristown High School.
"I feel sad tonight," she said. "I feel sad because I feel there was probably a better way to do this."
"I don't think it could have been done differently," Board of Education President Nancy Bangiola said after the five-hour meeting. "Yes, it was a difficult decision. There were a lot of things to weigh."
Among those things was not, she wanted to make clear, anything involving . His death, in his Morris Township home on March 28, .
Former Principal Ethel Minchello has been assigned as high school principal on an interim basis, at a salary of $153,822. Bangiola said the district would engage members of the school district, community and more before hiring the next full-time principal at the high school.
"It's going to take some time," she said.
Meanwhile, outside the meeting room, a few remaining audience members spoke with Murphy. Some of them wiped away tears.
"You deserve so much better," one person said as they embraced.
Karol Corbin Walker, one of Murphy's attorneys, said her client would not be making any additional statements.
Asked, however, how she felt after receiving all of the support on her behalf, Murphy, not crying but with noticeably reddened eyes, said, "I can't make a comment tonight," and left the building.
[Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Joanne Belmonte's name as Sharon Morgan.]