Bennington school meeting rescheduled for Thursday

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BENNINGTON — For the second straight week, the Bennington School District meeting has been postponed due to weather. It has been rescheduled for Thursday.

Typically, school board meetings are not highly anticipated events, with only one or two members of the public attending on any given month, but this meeting is expected to be different, as several members of the public have expressed intent to comment and demand answers regarding the board's controversial decision to not renew the contract of Bennington Elementary principal Jerry O'Connor on Jan. 31.

At the time the decision on O'Connor's contract had been made, the board had already announced its intention to cancel its regular February meeting, and the one time they did meet in February, they went directly into executive session after opening the meeting and did not take public comments. Several notable public figures, including State Rep. Mary Morrissey and Bennington Select Board members Jeanne Conner and Jeannie Jenkins, were present for that meeting but were not given the opportunity to speak. The board did meet Monday of last week as part of the annual town meeting budget presentation, and several people, including Mount Anthony Union High School's senior class president, Bennington Elementary's library media specialist, and O'Connor himself, used the public comment portion of that meeting to protest the decision.

At that meeting, BSD moderator Lawrence Shutts encouraged members of the public to keep their comments brief, as the meeting was already going longer than anticipated and the Bennington municipal floor meeting was still to come in the same location. He said that Wednesday's regular school board meeting would be largely dedicated to the topic of O'Connor's contract. However, a winter storm postponed that meeting to this Tuesday, and now a second has pushed it to this Thursday.

According to the agenda for Thursday's special meeting, it is scheduled to begin with re-organization, election of officers, and committee appointments, as is the standard for the first meeting after elections. Prior to public comments, which are scheduled for 30 minutes, there will be a review of Policy #7300, Public Participation at Board Meetings, and a statement by the chairperson, who will be elected during the re-organization, regarding the confidentiality of personnel issues. The position is currently held by Chris Murphy, who has served in that role since joining the board last March.

The chairperson's statement will be the first time the school board has commented on the situation, outside of a statement made by the board immediately after the decision was announced, in which they said, "The board determined to take this action because it believes that a new direction is required administratively in order for the district to move forward."

"All I ever wanted was a chance from them to prove I could do this job," said O'Connor last Monday. "I think that I have. I wasn't given the opportunity to meet with the whole board, just a couple people separately, and I think if they had really gotten to know the man, they would have made a different decision. I've spent many years, I went into education 22 years ago to make a difference, when my kids were young. That's all I want to do. Benn El is my family, it's my neighborhood, my kids went there, I'm dedicated to that building."

"You never gave me a chance, you never got to know me," he said. "I don't want there to be animosity at all. All I want is to go back to Bennington, I want this all to be over, I just want to do my job." He received a standing ovation from a majority of the audience.

O'Connor said at that meeting that he had been informed last June that the board was considering not renewing his contract, but that decision could be rescinded based on his performance over the current school year. O'Connor had periodic meetings with superintendent Jim Culkeen, assistant superintendent Donna Leep, and Bennington Elementary principal Edie Dunn, which O'Connor said went very well, with no indication that his performance was sub-par or unsatisfactory.

"Since Principal Dunn has come to our school this year, there has been a huge change," said kindergarten teacher Valerie Hope at the Jan. 31 meeting. "You don't read about it in the papers, you don't read about it on Facebook, but there has been a morale boost. Edie and Jerry compliment each other, they are the perfect team."

O'Connor was named assistant principal prior to the 2012-2013 school year. He began his teaching career at Monument Elementary teaching sixth and seventh grade in 1998. He moved to teaching sixth grade at Bennington Elementary in 2002, then moved with the sixth grade students to Mount Anthony Union Middle School in 2007, where he remained until he was hired as Bennington's assistant principal.

The meeting will take place in the gymnasium at Molly Stark Elementary School at 7 p.m. An executive session is scheduled for the end of the meeting, in which the board will discuss "the appointment, employment, or evaluation of a public officer or employee."

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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