Last week the Philipsburg-Osceola Area school board chose not to renew district superintendent Stephen Benson’s contract.
By itself, that’s not unusual. A majority of board members decided that Benson, a controversial figure since his hire in 2009, lacked the right temperament and policies to continue leading the district.
Benson had his supporters, including board members, who decried what they saw as a vitriolic, obsessive campaign to dump him. His tenure had become a divisive community issue.
In the end, the board exercised its right to seek a new direction for the district.
But we’re troubled by the unprofessional way they went about it.
Board members Mary Ellen Holden, Todd Jeffries and Rebecca Timchack gave Benson zeros in every category on their official evaluations. They had to scrawl their own columns, since the forms were on a 1 to 5 scale.
The trashing extended to “high standards of ethics, honesty and integrity” and “expresses a genuine concern for and interest in the welfare of the students.” It also covered “suitably attired and well groomed.”
Another board member, Jim Verbeck, charitably sprinkled in a 1 here and there.
Their comments took the attacks even lower. Jeffries alleged Benson has “no ethics” and “is not honest.” Timchack called Benson “disgusting” and “despicable,” and then added a memorable rhetorical flourish. Morale in the district, she wrote, was “lower than whale vomit.”
Robert Selfridge and Steve Switala, the former board president, voted against the motion to fire Benson and resigned after Monday’s meeting. Both have criticized the evaluations as vindictive and mean-spirited. We agree.
Let’s add childish. Attire? Grooming? Whatever Benson’s perceived faults were — and his detractors saw many — his appearance probably wasn’t one. One profile described him wearing a neat suit and sporting a trimmed beard. Perhaps the board wanted him to show up in ratty jeans.
Ethics? Honesty? How about some evidence? None of the evaluations backed their accusations with specific incidents. And, really, whale vomit?
Which bathroom stall did that one come from?
“Mr. Benson is petrified of students. He wants absolutely nothing to do with them. They are dirt under his feet!” Timchack wrote.
That’s not a job evaluation. It’s character assassination.
Perhaps, as Benson’s critics charge, he was “overbearing” to teachers and staff members. Maybe he should have moved locally, as some thought, instead of commuting back to Lancaster County on weekends. It’s possible, though unlikely, that some of his ideas were “insane,” in Timchack’s words.
But to tar a career educator as afraid of children and uncaring of their future— an assessment not shared by Switala and others --amounts to mudslinging of the worst sort.
Board members could have taken the high road to carry out their wish. They chose to wallow in the ditch.
Benson, Jeffries said earlier this year, “probably was a brainiac nerdy kid who was bullied by the jocks and the cool kids. And the same with (board President) Stevie Switala ... Now they’ve got themselves in a position of authority, and they are the bullies.”
That’s rich given the personal bashing he and his cohorts dished out. What an example they set as the district spreads anti-bullying messages.
But Jeffries, who unapologetically says residents voted him on the board to oust Benson, is hardly a role model. In an astonishing view for an education leader, he once accused the superintendent of focusing too much on college preparation instead of vocational classes and technical training.
“This guy wants to teach solely to the upper crust,” Jeffries said. “We have more average and below students than average and above.”
Some local parents were insulted. We wonder how many feel the same now about a school board that sank to taunting — and by doing so, may have made the search for Benson’s replacement harder.
“I’m very embarrassed for our community because of what happened,” Switala said. There’s zero defense for it.