Petition calls for school board member to resign

05/04/09 7:34AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) Some residents of Bennington have launched a petition calling for the resignation of a disgraced former school superintendent elected in March to the local school board.

In 1989, George Sleeman was convicted of eight counts of embezzlement from the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union. Now that he's back in the public eye, the community is divided over how to respond.

VPR's Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The petition, with more than 200 hundred signatures, ran as a quarter-page ad in Saturday's Bennington Banner. It refers to damage to the community allegedly caused by Sleeman's misdeeds more than 20 years ago.

Recently retired school board member Jeanne Conner helped organize the petition drive.

(Conner) I just don't think that it's appropriate for him to be on the very school board in the district that he embezzled money from.

(Keese) Conner wasn't in Bennington during the investigation into what was then called ‘The largest case of white-collar corruption in Vermont history." She says she was approached by friends who found the memory of Sleeman too painful or too intimidating.

There were two seats open for the board this March and only one person running. Sleeman was elected with 45 votes to a three-year term. Local resident Mike Bethel organized the write-in campaign.

(Bethel) George has all the experience from his educational background. He's a great guy. I've known him for quite a few years, and there was an empty seat and I thought he'd be good at it.

(Keese) Sleeman was a popular teacher before becoming superintendant in 1972. He held the office 13 years.

Pam Coffield was a newcomer to the board in the early 80s and one of the whistle blowers who helped end Sleeman's tenure. She says it started with the discovery of a $2 million dollar deficit.

(Coffield) And things began to unravel. There were break-ins where only check books were stolen, lots of them. There was a fire where only paper work was destroyed. Then ghost courses showed up.

(Keese) Records showed Sleeman hired educators to teach classes that never happened. Coffield says many reputations and careers were damaged in the scandal. She says Sleeman is a charismatic figure.

(Coffield) The sad thing about it to me was that it was totally divisive to the town, because there are those who will still cross the street when they see me, or if they're in the grocery store go down a different aisle.

(Keese) Sleeman didn't respond to requests for an interview.  But Mike Bethel, the write-in organizer, says the former superintendant spent more than a year in jail.

(Bethel) People should be able to be forgiven, I mean if not, what do we have the court system for? If somebody goes to court and they've paid their dues and their restoration to society, we're not going to let them back in?

(Keese) The school board seems to be taking a similar position. Speaking at a local coffee shop, board chairman Ken Swierad said it's time to move on.

(Swierad) I mean, he's not the only person who ever had a problem in life, and at our last meeting he was arguing to make sure we didn't spend money on a phone system unless we had money for summer school for the kids, so he's already done a few things to show where his priorities are.

(Keese) The petitioners do plan to present their signatures to the board. Mike Bethel says they'd be better off fielding a candidate to defeat Sleeman when his 3 year term expires.

For VPR news, I'm Susan Keese.

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