O'Connor's contract at Benn El not renewed

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BENNINGTON — The Bennington School Board on Wednesday evening made the decision to not renew the contract of Bennington Elementary Assistant Principal Jerry O'Connor.

The decision was made following an over 30-minute executive session at a special meeting on Wednesday. According to board chairman Chris Murphy, the decision about whether or not O'Connor's contract was going to be renewed needed to be made before Feb. 1. The decision was split four to one, with only George Sleeman voting in favor of renewing the contract, and Jackie Prue abstaining. Meridy Capella was not present for the meeting.

Initially, when Murphy asked for a motion from the board not to renew O'Connor's contract, no one was willing to volunteer. Eventually Chaila Sekora made the motion, which was seconded by Jackie Kelly.

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.

In an emotional statement before the meeting, O'Connor said that he had been informed last spring that the board was considering not renewing his contract. According to O'Connor, under the collectively bargained administrator contract, the board does not need to give a specific reason for non-renewal if notice is given prior to June 30 of the second year of the contract, which in his case was last June.

"It is with a sad heart and deep moral conviction that I am speaking to you tonight," he said. "I am fully aware that the board will meet in executive session and then state publicly my fate. It was brought to my attention last year that a significant number of board members were strongly considering not bringing me back after my contract ends on June 30, 2018... To say the least I was surprised and extremely disillusioned by the board's action, however, a glimmer of hope was presented to me at that time. It was stated to me by (Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Human Resources Director) Ed McTiernan and (SVSU Superintendent) Jim Culkeen that the agreement could be rescinded depending on my performance during the upcoming year. After some reflective thought and consultation, I took the offer, looking upon it as an opportunity to prove my worthiness to this board."

"Over the past year, (first-year Bennington Elementary Principal Edie Dunn) and I have worked cooperatively to move the school forward," he said. "We compliment each other quite well, and we respect, trust, and value each other as human beings and colleagues." O'Connor said that he had attended several joint meetings with Culkeen, Dunn, and Assistant Superintendent Donna Leep over the past year to measure his progress, and said that those meetings went well, with no indication that his performance was sub-par or unsatisfactory.

"So the eleventh hour is here, and the board will speak publicly about their decision," he said. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr., saying, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort or convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy."

"A decision will most likely be made to tonight that will bring my time at Benn El to an end in June," he concluded. "To me, it is an ending I do not deserve. But do not doubt that I will spend my last days at Benn El doing my best for its students, our teachers, and our community. No doubt... My heart is telling me that I cannot in good conscience resign from my position as assistant principal at Benn El. Life is what you make it, make of it what you will."

Several faculty and staff members were there to represent O'Connor. One said that more were planning to attend next week's regular February Bennington School Board meeting, as they were not aware the decision would be made on Wednesday night. The board, prior to hearing that comment at Wednesday's meeting, had agreed to cancel the meeting and not to meet in February. This is common practice for boards in the month leading up to town meeting.

Behavior specialist Nancy Haynes said that "For you guys to take him out right now, it's not the right thing for the kids, it's not the right thing for the community. I'm going to speak for all of us at the school — and it's hard because a lot more of us would have been here to support Jerry if we had known there wouldn't be another opportunity — but if you do this now, Benn El is going to suffer even more." She encouraged the board members to visit the school and see the work that O'Connor and the rest of the staff do at a daily basis, personally challenging Murphy to come shadow her for a day.

"Last week," she said, "as all of this was going on, I look in the gym and who is sweeping the floor and coaching basketball? He does so much, that guy loves kids. That's all we can do is love those kids. It's the saddest state of affairs that you'll ever see. I want you to come to Benn El, Chris Murphy, and spend a day with me and walk in my shoes. I think it's really important, and then you can come back and share with these people, because you don't get it."

Kindergarten teacher Valerie Hope said that O'Connor often takes on other responsibilities, such as coaching, organizing and preparing for school events, and running the parent-teacher group, and is always willing to make time for kids. "His passion and commitment for Benn El are tremendous," she said. "I don't think people see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes... He's behind the scenes, but he's also front-and-center. I've had parents who thought Jerry was the principal because he's so visible. He's in the hallway, he's saying good morning, he's greeting parents, he's speaking to their children every single day."

"Since Principal Dunn has come to our school this year, there has been a huge change," she said. "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."

Murphy and Culkeen declined comment after the meeting, but Murphy later released a statement on behalf of the board. "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," it reads.

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

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