November 12, 2001 11:00 pm

People elected to public office have an obligation to the people they represent. Not only are they expected to make decisions in what they feel are the public interest, but they are expected to do so ethically and legally. They must declare conflicts or potential conflicts of interest when they exist. They cannot use their position for personal gain. They cannot strike out on their own and try to exert undue influence within the body theyve been elected to oversee. Above all, they are not above the law.

A La Grande School Board director has been pushing the limits of ethical behavior. Shari Bennett, the senior member of the school board, overstepped her authority this summer when she sought and reviewed student records pertaining to a foreign exchange program. She and fellow board member Kathleen Cathey allegedly were looking for information about the Youth for Understanding program. YFU was recognized by the school board last spring, although Bennett, a longtime representative of the American Field Service exchange program, seemed to be trying to keep YFU from being recognized.

Cathey was the one who notified La Grande High School that she and Bennett had looked at the records and didnt realize they contained student information. She has apologized for the mistake. Bennett has not.

Prior to that incident, Bennett pushed for a students grade to be changed. She convinced the superintendent, whom the board as a whole oversees, that the student should be allowed to retake a final exam. Then-Superintendent Jerry Sessions consented, the student retook the test, and the students grade was changed. The grade was changed back after a grievance was filed by the teachers association and upheld by the board following a closed session.

Both INCIDENTS are indicative of an elected official who has carried her authority beyond the scope of what is ethical and legal. She has abused her authority and should resign from the school board.

The issues didnt come to light until late summer and early fall when they were discussed in closed session by the school board. Since then, The Observer and the school boards attorney have been in discussions for the release of records. On Oct. 25, the board released information about the exchange program incident, and last week The Observer reported the story, including information it had gathered apart from the board on the grade change issue.

The school board went to great lengths to protect the identity of students in the release of information to The Observer, which is necessary when dealing with student records. In the process, Bennetts unethical actions were nearly protected from ever being made public.

Bennett has refused to make any comments about why she exerted her influence over the superintendent for a grade change and why she set out on her own to probe the YFU program, violating the confidentiality of student records and board policy. She should step down. Grounds exist for recall.