O'Connor supporters speak out at town meeting

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BENNINGTON — The Bennington School District's segment of the annual town meeting is generally quick, with a brief presentation about the budget to be voted on the next day. But this year was different.

The public took advantage of the opportunity to address the board about the fate of longtime area educator Bennington Elementary assistant principal Jerry O'Connor after the board decided in January not to renew his contract when it expires at the end of the school year. The board canceled its regular February meeting, along with all but two of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union boards, and did not accept public comment at a brief special meeting that month, citing an SVSU policy that says that boards need not take public comment if the only item warned on the agenda is an executive session.

The board's March meeting was scheduled for this Wednesday, but was canceled due to the snowstorm and has not yet been rescheduled. BSD moderator Lawrence Shutts said on Monday that the March meeting would be almost entirely dedicated to discussing O'Connor.

"All I ever wanted was a chance from them to prove I could do this job," said O'Connor on 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.

Morgan Flynn, the president of Mount Anthony Union High School's current senior class, presented a petition with over 430 signatures from Bennington residents calling for O'Connor's contract to be renewed. "After hearing your decision to oust O'Connor a few weeks ago there has been a tremendous amount of town voters who have shown their support for Jerry O'Connor," he said. "On top of the 430 signatures from town residents, I also have over 150 signatures from from high school students who currently attend Mount Anthony."

"When meeting with students to collect signatures, I heard in many conversations about how Jerry O'Connor has impacted their lives," he said. "Whether its been through athletics, academics, or administration, students consistently described the great lengths he would go through to encourage and ensure their success. Many have stated that Mr. O'Connor's treatment is unethical and morally wrong. They are outraged by the decision the BSD and the superintendent made not to renew his contract.

"Fellow townspeople, I feel this board has no hard evidence against Jerry O'Connor, and if they are attempting to remove him for low test scores, this board and this superintendent should not only look at the teachers and administrators, but the parents of the children in our community. You cannot simply blame the faculty for the students' low test scores or how well they learn."

Flynn concluded his remarks by saying that if O'Connor cannot return as assistant principal at Bennington Elementary, he should be named the new principal at MAUHS. SVSU curriculum director Laura Boudreau is currently serving in that position on an interim basis until a permanent replacement for Glenda Cresto, who resigned last summer, can be found.

Flynn, too, received lengthy applause. Later in Monday's meeting, O'Connor stated for the record that he does not want the high school principal job, as he loves the job he's in.

The SVSU or the school board have not given any specifics reasons for the decision not to renew O'Connor's contract, 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."

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.

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.

Bennington Elementary library media specialist Nichole Forest also spoke at the town meeting, addressing the people of Bennington directly. "The faculty and staff of Bennington Elementary stand behind Mr. O'Connor and his commitment to our school and our children 100 percent," she said, adding that the staff had recently completed a survey from the Agency of Education about O'Connor's competency and that she had requested a meeting with BSD board chairman Chris Murphy to discuss the results. "We want our assistant principal's contract renewed. He is an advocate for your children and an asset to Bennington Elementary School."

Murphy did not respond on Thursday to a request for comment on O'Connor or the status of rescheduling the next board meeting.

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

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