Supporters want O'Connor rehired

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BENNINGTON — About two dozen supporters of Bennington Elementary School's assistant principal, Jerry O'Connor, gathered at the Four Corners in the rain on Sunday morning to protest the Bennington School Board's 4-1 decision not to renew the educator's contract.

Holding signs with messages such as "Jerry O'Connor Supports Our Kids — He Needs to Stay!" and "Don't Be a Fool — Keep Him In Our School," supporters were greeted by honks and waves from passing motorists as they stood at the intersection of Routes 7 and 9 for about 90 minutes.

"I think Jerry O'Connor is a huge support system for every child in that school, and he needs to keep his job," said parent Julia Leonetti. "I have a fourth-grade student at Benn El, and he's been there since kindergarten, and I've been very happy with the school and what they do for my child."

The grassroots event, word of which was spread via social media, was the latest expression of dissatisfaction by the Benn El community with the decision. Last week, petitions appeared at at least three local businesses, calling on the School Board to reverse its Jan. 31 vote and renew O'Connor's contract. On Friday, some parents gathered at the school to hold signs of support for O'Connor.

The board decision has sparked a number of letters to the Banner or posted on social media as well, including one letter that was signed by 47 staff and faculty members from the school.

In their open letter to the School Board, the staff noted that "Benn El has a very challenging population that includes significant poverty, homelessness and trauma. We don't need change, we need consistency."

O'Connor has been vice principal at Benn El since 2012.

Amy Thibeault and her children, Joshua, Nicole and Dakota, stood holding signs. "We think it's very important that we keep him," Thibeault said. "He's very important to our children. He cares about them, he's understanding, he's against bullying, he's a very great man."

"I'm here to support Mr. O'Connor," said Venice Babson, who was accompanied by her children, Caidan and Haidan. "My kids have been going there since kindergarten, and now they're in third and fourth grade, and I've really seen a lot with him. I have a kid who's now in eighth grade, and went there for a year, and the things I've seen him do with these kids, he shouldn't lose his job."

"One of my kids will go in, and he'll say, 'Oh, Mr. Babson, you're doing a good job today.' And that makes my kid feel good," she said. "The kids will be upset if he's not there, because he does a lot for those kids. He puts a lot of his feelings and love into that school."

Parents said they were not satisfied with the school board's public explanation of its action. After the vote, the board released a statement explaining that "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 comment further.

"They haven't given us any reason, honestly," Leonetti said. "To say they want to take the school in a new direction is not a reason. How are they planning on doing those things, and why can't Jerry be involved?"

Babson agreed. "They sent me an email, stating that they want to improve the school. And if you take him from the school, you're not going to improve the school; you're going to make the school go downhill."

Supporters expressed varying degrees of optimism about the prospects for saving O'Connor's job. "It would be awesome if we could," Leonetti said. "I think there's strength in numbers."

"We're hoping," said Babson, adding that organizers hope to make a show of support for O'Connor at the board's next meeting, in March.

"We can at least let them know that we're against it," Thibeault said. "Maybe we can change the school board later on."

David LaChance can be reached at dlachance@benningtonbanner.com.


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