Public defends asst. principal after dismissal

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BENNINGTON — Days after the announcement that Bennington Elementary Assistant Principal Jerry O'Connor's contract would not be renewed at the end of the school year, the public has reacted strongly to the news, voicing support for O'Connor and asking the board to reverse their decision.

Last Wednesday, the Bennington School District Board voted 4-1, with one abstaining and one member not present, not to renew O'Connor's contract at the end of the school year.

On Monday, petitions calling for the board to reverse its decision and allow O'Connor to continue in the role he has served in since 2012 were available at a number of businesses in town, including Willy's Variety Store, Benner's Bagels Pizza 'N WhatNosh, and Martin's MiniMart. While it was not immediately clear who was circulating the petitions, several parents, faculty members, and public figures have written letters to the Banner or posted on social media expressing their support for O'Connor and attacking the board's decision. Some of the social media posts indicated that public protests could be planned for later in the week.

Forty-seven staff and faculty members from Bennington Elementary released a signed letter asking the board to reconsider its decision. "As a staff," they wrote, "our hearts are heavy and we are concerned for the future and safety of our school going forward. Jerry O'Connor has dedicated his life to children, as a parent, teacher, coach, and for the last six years, as assistant principal. He is one of the most dedicated educators and community members. He has spent tireless hours acclimating our new principal to the school and community. We have made great strides this year because Principal Edie Dunn and Jerry complement each other perfectly.

"To bring a new assistant principal in at this time will be a setback and a huge burden on Principal Dunn. Benn El has a very challenging population that includes significant poverty, homelessness and trauma. We don't need change, we need consistency. We are asking the BSD Board of Directors to reconsider their decision and to renew Assistant Principal Jerry O'Connor's contract."

"I was truly disheartened to read that the Bennington School Board made the decision not to renew Jerry O'Connor's contract as assistant principal at Bennington Elementary School," wrote State Rep. Mary Morrissey in a letter that will run in full in the Banner in the coming days. "I have seen firsthand the professionalism and dedication to education that Jerry brings to every situation. It is obvious that he is well-respected and loved by the students, their families, fellow staff and administration... I hope the members of the BSD board will actually take the time to walk in the daily footsteps of one of Bennington's beloved educators and administrators to see the positive difference that he makes in the lives of those he comes in contact with daily."

State Rep. Kiah Morris said on Facebook that the board owed the community immediate justification for its actions. "What I have seen is his strong ability to connect with the youth who attend and meet them where they are at," she said. "The community deserves CLEAR answers to justify this vote."

"I have known Mr. O'Connor for his entire teaching career," said Sean-Marie Oller, a former State Board of Education member and chairwoman of the Mount Anthony Union and Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union boards. "He is dedicated and cares deeply about Bennington's students. Mr. O'Connor student-taught when my children were in third and fourth grade at Molly Stark under the direction of Mrs. Harrington, twenty years ago. He was chosen to be a middle school team teacher in the new MAU middle school. Mr. O'Connor, along with another teacher, ran the 21st century afterschool program at the Middle School. He was always giving his time to the students of Bennington, before school, after school and during school. After receiving his administrator's license Mr. O'Connor applied and was hired as Bennington Elementary School's assistant principal in 2012."

"In all of Mr. O'Connor's positions," she said, "he continuously looked for ways to improve students' lives, whether by coaching, listening or calling in a team of adults to work with a child or simply having lunch with them. Mr. O'Connor has given back tenfold to the Bennington community and this is how the BSD Board treats him? I hope there is a way for the Bennington School District to reverse its action."

After the decision was made, the board released a brief statement: "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."

Bennington School Board Chairman Chris Murphy and SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen have declined to offer further comment on the personnel matter. The school board, prior to its announcement regarding O'Connor, agreed to cancel its regular February meeting. They will meet again after Town Meeting, on March 7.

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

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