Buffeted by some teachers and parents who would rather he go elsewhere, Salt Lake School District Superintendent John W. Bennion says he's having mixed feelings about staying with the district.
In the lastest round of what Bennion says is continuing fallout from the district's controversial high school boundary decision, a group of about 30 Salt Lake School District patrons is seeking a formal review of Bennion's performance.Bennion is still working through problems with teachers after a no-confidence vote by the Salt Lake Teachers Association earlier this year.
The newest challenge to Bennion's administration comes only six weeks before the superintendent's contract expires at the end of June. Although he must decide soon whether to seek a new contract, he declined to say if he is looking for another job.
If it looks as if it will be a long time before the district settles down, then his enthusiasm for the job will be diminished, he said. But if it looks like the turmoil will die down, then he will be more optimistic about continuing at the district's helm, the superintendent said.
At the same time a group of Salt Lake residents is complaining, the Salt Lake Association of School Administrators has written the school board supporting Bennion's administration.
The patron complaints come in the form of a "Review of Services," a process guaranteed through the district's contract with the teachers that allows review and, if necessary, a third-party examination of the issues and a hearing before the Salt Lake Board of Education to resolve problems. The process is open to district teachers and patrons but not to students.
Those filing the review must meet with the person being reviewed. About 10 patrons did that with Bennion this week, handing him a list of 10 specific concerns.
"I personally have no confidence in Bennion," said Ralph Little, who asked for the meeting with Bennion. "I personally have called for his resignation, and I've sent him a letter to that effect. I have nothing against him personally. He's probably a fine, upstanding man, but I think he is doing a lousy job of running the district."
Little said he was the only one at the meeting who actually asked for the superintendent's resignation and he doesn't know how the others feel.
"We would like to see the school district be improved. We feel it's gone down hill dramatically," Little said.
Another patron who attended the meeting but asked not to be identified said not everyone wants Bennion to leave. "A few people would like to see Dr. Bennion out, but most don't feel that way," she said. "He was very open. He said he needed specifics to see what problems needed to be looked at."
Many of the concerns listed by the patrons deal with Bennion's management style, charging he has poor public-relations skills; relies on top-down management that imposes decisions from the central office, which was an issue raised by the teachers; and has problems directing his staff and the school board.
Patrons also complained that the central office is bloated with administrators, and the superintendent ineffectively handled the closure of South High School and should have had an alternative to its closure.
Patron Nina Taylor believes Bennion has done wonderful things for the curriculum but said she and others in the district have the perception that many decisions are made before community or teacher input is received.
"They haven't realized that trust and respect are earned and that as long as people perceive they are being forced to do something there will be those who will try and subvert," she said.
Karen Peterson said, "We want money to go to real education, not to the bloated staff that exists here."
She also called the move to create equity in the city's three high schools "a social experiment that belongs in the '60s."
Bennion, who is preparing a written response to the patron concerns, said he feels trapped in the proverbial Catch 22 by contradictory messages. On one hand, he hears district patrons saying he needs to be more accountable for district problems and be a strong leader while at the same time they are saying that decision-making needs to be spread out to the schools and community, Bennion said.
He said he feels it is unfair and an oversimplification to focus all school district problems on him.
He also said that, given the economic circumstances, it would have been irresponsible not to close South and a committee was involved in that action. "I make no apologies for the South closure," Bennion said.
A new committee has been set up to examine shared governance, the district policy that gives administrators, teachers and patrons a voice in issues that concern them. Bennion said it will address how the district can operate in the spirit of shared governance while at the same time getting something accomplished. He said the district needs to look at the issue of what decisions are appropriately made at the local level and what ones at the central office.
In the administrators' letter, signed by President Ivan Cendese, principal of Highland High School, they said they support Bennion's effort to work out any problems with the teachers and the superintendent's increased focus on improved communication and involving individual schools in decision making.
It also said it is important to maintain continuity of district leadership over the next two to three years. "We support the district administration and do not want to see discontinuity in the current leadership. A continued and conscious effort to improve human relations and interpersonal communication is needed to create a sense of teamwork among administrators at the district and local levels," it said.