Friday, March 6
BENNINGTON — Newly elected Bennington School District Board member and former Superintendent George Sleeman faced pointed objections to his presence Thursday during his first meeting as a member.

Sleeman, who was convicted in 1988 of embezzlement and perjury in connection with his position and served a prison term, was elected Tuesday to an open seat after receiving 45 write-in votes, three more than another write-in candidate, Sean-Marie Oller, who is chairwoman of the Mount Anthony Union School District Board.

Sleeman's troubled history with the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, and the manner in which he was elected, sparked the ire of several people Thursday. Those transgressions alarmed formerboard member Jeanne Conner,who chose not to seek re-election for another term after eight years on the board.

She called for Sleeman to resign during the meeting's public comment period. "I am outraged at the results of the vote on Tuesday, not to mention how it was orchestrated behind the scenes. The BSD Board has been made a mockery of by the election of Mr. Sleeman," Conner said. "For the good of the children of Bennington, I ask Mr. Sleeman to remove himself from the board."

Local activist Michael Bethel said Tuesday that he was responsible for organizing a write-in campaign on Sleeman's behalf, unbeknownst to Sleeman, who decided to accept the position after speaking with his family.

Board member Lora Block also expressed anger. She said she has received dozens of calls and e-mails from Bennington residents who are "disgusted and shocked" that "someone who created such turmoil" would be elected to the board.

"Not everybody thinks this is a good idea," she said.

She accused Bethel, who has opposed many of the board's policies in recent years and currently has a lawsuit filed against the district seeking e-mails sent among board members, of trying to subvert and "hijack from the inside" the board.

"(Bethel has) been very successful at disrupting what we're trying to do on this board," Block said. "It seems that we now have a member on our board, or appears to be, beholden by someone outside this board."

"He has made his reputation ... by trying to destroy what this board is doing," Block added.

New board Chairman Kenneth Swierad rejected that premise, saying Sleeman only accounted for one vote on the board. "I really don't think we have to fear any individual. There are seven people on the board," he said.

Bethel, too, rejected the idea that Sleeman would be beholden to his interests. "Nobody does Bethel's bidding. I do my own," he said when contacted by phone. "Lora Block should concentrate on educating our students. If she can't do that, she ought to resign."

Another former board member, Nancy Pearlman, spoke out against Sleeman's election by write-in. "It was very back-handed, and as a voter, I feel very ripped-off," Pearlman said.

Oller, who has petitioned for a recount of the election results, said her candidacy was different because she openly sought write-in votes on her own behalf.

"I chose to run as a write-in because nobody else stepped forward. It was my choice," Oller said.

The board reorganized Thursday after the election of Sleeman and Meridy Leibrock-Capella, whose name appeared on the ballot. Swierad was chosen to serve as the chairman, while Block will serve as its vice chairwoman. Laurie Cohen will serve as the clerk.

Block, Swierad and Robert Butterfield will serve as the BSD's representation on the SVSU Board.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com.