December 10, 2001 11:00 pm
Shari Bennett ().
Shari Bennett ().

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The La Grande School Districts teachers and administrators have taken a vote of no confidence and are asking school board member Shari Bennett to resign.

The teachers and administrators issued a joint statement indicating a strong vote of no confidence against Bennett. The same statement says that the teachers and administrators believe that Bennett should resign.

Representatives of the teachers and administrators said the no-confidence vote was approved by a overwhelming majority, but did not indicate specific vote totals.

In a written statement submitted to The Observer this morning, Bennett said, I do not take this personally. There is chalk dust on the sleeve of my soul because I am a teacher by education and profession. I have a sincere appreciation for all educators and the importance of what they do for our children. I understand the politics of the teachers union. I also understand the dynamics of this situation.

A statement explaining the vote of no confidence was presented to The Observer Monday by curriculum director Jay Rowell and La Grande High School Principal Doug Potter, representing the administrators, and elementary school teachers Lisa Nicholson and Dennis Young, representing the teachers.

The statement was submitted after a vote was taken last week. All of the school districts approximately 140 teachers voted and 11 of the school districts 12 administrators voted. Superintendent Dan Arriola was not polled.

We felt that it would be a wrong position to put him in, Potter said.

Bennett has been embroiled in controversy for much of this year after being accused of overstepping her authority as a board member. On Oct. 25 the La Grande School Board released a statement that said Bennett had overstepped her authority in a matter involving confidential student records.

A statement released by the school board acknowledged that sometime between June 20 and June 22 Bennett examined files containing confidential student records at La Grande High School.

School board member Kathleen Cathey was present with Bennett when the files were reviewed. Cathey apologized to the school board and the public.

Bennett also apologized for assessing the YFU program file at La Grande High School in a paid statement that was published in The Observer on Nov. 17.

She said the action was inappropriate for an individual board member and said she will not be involved in this type of incident again.

Earlier this year Bennett was involved in another matter that resulted in a grievance being filed. The matter involved the changing of a students grade.

The grade was changed in cooperation with Jerry Sessions, who was then the school districts superintendent. Sessions is now the superintendent of the Hood River County School District.

A grievance was filed by the

La Grande Education Association, the teachers union, following the change. In August the La Grande School Board heard the issue in executive (closed) session and upheld the grievance publicly, thereby overturning the grade change.

In her Nov. 17 statement, Bennett said she felt a student had been treated unfairly. ... The superintendent investigated the issue and acted on his own.

The no-confidence vote statement released by the administrators and teachers makes reference to the student record and the grade-change issues. It also refers to an alleged inappropriate sharing of information that was presented in executive (closed) session of a school board meeting.

Kyle McKinney, president of the La Grande Education Association, explained the executive session issue this morning. He said Bennett shared information from a closed session about a La Grande teacher. A letter was written by the Oregon Education Associations attorney to Bennett reminding her of the law regarding the release of information discussed in executive session, said McKinney, a math teacher at La Grande High School.

According to the teachers and administrators statement, Bennett has demonstrated her inability to fulfill the ethical obligations of her position. The ethical obligations she has allegedly not fulfilled fall into two categories, those involving the Oregon School Board Associations code of ethics for board members and those which go against La Grande School District board policy for board member ethics.

The administrators and teachers listed the following OSBA ethical obligations that Bennett allegedly has not fulfilled:

Understand that the board sets the standards for the district through board policy. Board members do not manage the district on a day-to-day basis.

Refuse to use your board position for personal or family gain or prestige. Announce conflicts of interests before board action is taken.

Present personal criticism of district operations to the superintendent, not to district staff or to a board meeting.

Following are the obligations listed by the La Grande School District Board policy for board members ethics which Bennett allegedly has not fulfilled:

Confine board action to policy making, planning and evaluation and recognize that the superintendent, not the board is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the schools.

Recognize that the board functions only as a board through duly adopted policies and actions at public sessions.

Maintain confidentiality of privileged information.

The no-confidence statement does not provide details on the seven ethics items listed above.

La Grandes teachers and administrators believe that too much time is being devoted to the Bennett issue and that it is becoming a distraction.

Our vote, which is specifically a vote of no confidence in Shari Bennett, also reflects our desire to return the focus and energies of the La Grande School District to properly serving the children of our community, the statement said.

School board chairman Ron Arritola was told of the no-confidence vote Monday afternoon.

I guarantee that this will be

discussed at our next meeting, Arritola said.

Arritola said that it has not been determined whether the board will discuss the no confidence vote in open or executive session. The school boards next meeting is at 7 p.m. on Dec. 19. The session will be in the administration building.