Sleeman: Looking back

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Thursday, March 5
BENNINGTON — Former longtimeSuperintendent George Sleeman dominated local newspaper headlines for nearly a decade, after a $1.7 million school district deficit was brought to light on June 7, 1984.

Investigation for four years

Investigators spent the next four-plus years linking Sleeman, the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union superintendent from 1972 to June 1985, to the deficit, later reported as a $2 million budget shortfall.

He was convicted on eight counts of embezzlement and one count of perjury in October 1988 by a Rutland District Court jury.

Prosecutors alleged Sleeman embezzled $8,425 from two school bank accounts and lied about it at a 1986 state inquest into the matter.

Sleeman, who was elected to the Bennington School District's Board of Directors on Tuesday as a write-in candidate, was later sentenced to two years in Rutland Community Correctional Center by Judge Francis McCaffrey.

McCaffrey, who called the case an "unprecedented" violation of public trust, scolded Sleeman at his sentencing. "As has been said here today, time and again, at the core of this crime is a breach in trust," McCaffrey said during the sentencing.

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"The question we must ask — that I must ask — is, 'How did this happen?'" he said. "How could this have happened to you ... with all that life had to offer you? What were the seeds of this destruction?" the judge asked.

Sleeman's attorney, William Sessions, maintained his client's innocence after the hearing.

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Sleeman, now in his late 70s, served 13 months before being released on a 3-month furlough on April 20, 1990.

At the time, state officials and media heads called the "Bennington school scandal" the state's worst case of public corruption. "As far as I can tell, never in the state's history has there been something of this magnitude," said state archivist Gregory Sanford in 1988.

In addition to Sleeman, former assistant superintendents Neil Cunningham and John Putre agreed to plea deals, where they agreed to testify against Sleeman for reduced charges, and former school board member Louis Perrotta and the district's former treasurer, Edward Keough, were convicted of false pretenses and given suspended sentences.

Several teachers, including one elementary school principal, also lost their teaching certifications and resigned as part of the so-called "Castleton State College ghost course" scandal, a side scandal that took place from 1980 to 1983. There, Sleeman allegedly had a hand in a scheme where school officials were paid and teachers credited for re-certification courses that never met, only existing on paper.

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Investigators found corruption throughout the school system. Shortly after the deficit was found, auditors claimed financial records disappeared, checks in question went missing and school offices were broken into. Auditors later said Sleeman ran a financial "shell game," using 140 bank accounts for a school system that should have had 10.

They also said bidding practices were rigged to favor Sleeman's friends and line items in the budgets were intentionally overspent and not recorded.

The Bennington School District sued 20 former administrators, board members and district officials, attempting to recoup portions of the $2 million deficit. The district reportedly spent nearly $1 million in legal fees and accounting costs on the lawsuit, which recovered $525,000.

A number of other suits and countersuits were also filed between Sleeman and local school districts until 1992. At that time, the Banner reported that Sleeman and one of the local districts had been involved in at least one civil suit at any given time since 1985.

Sleeman taught social studies and was a guidance counselor and principal at Bennington High School before becoming assistant superintendent in 1965 and superintendent in 1972.

Contact John D. Waller at


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