Our Opinion: BSD Board decision should be reversed

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It is difficult to believe that another Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board is following a path similar to one that resulted in sinking staff morale and long-term disruption at Mount Anthony Union High School.

That was the outcome after the MAU district board in 2015 rejected for the principal's job an in-house finalist popular with staff members and the community in favor of someone from outside the area.

Among the fallout: The new principal left the position in August 2017, before her first contract had expired, and with a settlement agreement that had the MAU paying her salary and benefits through June.

That followed an extended period when, it's safe to say, staff/principal relations were not where Bennington residents would hope them to be. It is certainly fair to call this situation a fiasco, and a costly one.

The high school still lacks a permanent principal, and has installed an interim principal who also is still also curriculum director for the supervisory union. That can't be very efficient. Again, not a situation town residents should find comforting.

Now, the Bennington School District Board appears to be sticking to its guns in rejecting a contract renewal for Bennington Elementary Assistant Principal Jerry O'Connor. This is the case despite overwhelming support among the Benn El staff, students, parents, former students, current and former local officials and other members of the wider community.

If anything, the level of support shown for O'Connor illustrated in CAT-TV videos of board meetings, is even more passionate and vocal than the MAU Board confronted after it made its fateful hiring decision.

As one speaker told the board at its March 15 meeting, O'Connor "has more support than Father Christmas" within the school and community, and yet he is being terminated as of June 30.

We encourage residents to watch this video and try to come up with a rationale for a majority of the BSD Board in maintaining their stance.

Forget any possible personality conflicts or power trips, or even plausible arguable reasons for seeking a new role for the assistant principal. The overriding factor here is that this would certainly disrupt and could devastate a struggling elementary school that does not deserve to become a pawn in this confrontation.

The official reasons given for rejecting a new contract for O'Connor — a decision presumably reached in consultation with SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen and Assistant Superintendent Donna Leep — are that the board wants to move "in a new direction," and that they want an assistant principal with expertise in fostering literacy and other skills in younger students.

If those are really compelling reasons, why not give O'Connor time to become more proficient in those areas, or better, find room in the budget to hire another educator — even if it is a position shared among all BSD schools.

That's the approach many other districts would take, rather than dismiss a popular and hardworking employee over the vociferous objections of so many in this community.

This is someone, it should also be pointed out, who has worked in the school system for 22 years and has never had a negative evaluation placed in his personnel file until February — after the board had voted not to renew his contract.

It has become clear that in an elementary school facing many challenges resulting from a significant number of students living in poverty and/or amid a disruptive homelife, the obvious skills O'Connor has demonstrated in relating to children — and to their parents — are exactly what this school needs in an assistant principal.

As one speaker said during the recent board meeting, "This community needs a hundred more Jerry O'Connors, and you want to get rid of the one that we are lucky enough to have."

Finding someone to both relate well to the community — in which he lives, not far, in fact, from Benn El — and a skilled literacy specialist also seems a fanciful goal at best. These are distinct skill sets; hence a good argument for two different employees, even if that means additional funding.

Supporters of Jerry O'Connor say they fear the kind of disruption that plagued the high school will come to Benn El if the wishes of the staff and community are flatly ignored. It is hard to see how else this could all play out unless the board finds a way to reverse this ill-considered decision.


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