Facing yet another challenge to his administration, Salt Lake School Superintendent John W. Bennion says he needs to assess if he can be an effective leader before he decides how he feels about continuing in his job.
The latest challenge came from the Salt Lake Board of Education, which narrowly voted Tuesday night to renew the superintendent's contract for another two years. Bennion's contract expires June 30. The 4-3 vote for renewal fell along the well-known split that was born in the high school boundary decision and has fractured many board votes since then."I think it would be very, very difficult for any superintendent to deal with the present feelings that exist," he told the Deseret News.
He added that his decision could also be influenced by how the high schools adjust to their new boundaries, the outcome of board elections and the success or failure of the tax initiatives.
Earlier in the year, the superintendent had to iron out problems with teachers after receiving a vote of "no confidence" from the Salt Lake Teachers Association. Last month, 30 patrons angry over the boundary decision asked for a formal review of Bennion's performance.
In Tuesday night's vote, Board President F. Keith Stepan and members Colleen Minson, Ronald Walker and Susan Keene said "yes" to another two years on Bennion's contract, while the board's east-side members - Vice President Stephen Boyden, Carolyn Kump and Lorna Matheson - voted against renewal.
Bennion said he wasn't surprised by the vote. "There is a lot of disappointment still around the boundary decision and the failure to resolve it to the satisfaction of the east side." Actually, Bennion knew about the vote before it was cast in open meeting. The three dissenters met with the superintendent before the meeting to tell him of their intentions. When the vote was taken during the public meeting, it was done without comment.
"I really like John Bennion," Matheson said after the meeting. But, she added, she doesn't think it is in Bennion's best interest - or that of the school district - for him to continue as superintendent.
"I think this district is in extreme turmoil," she said.
She denied rumors that the trio had asked for the superintendent's resignation.
Bennion admitted it will not be easy to work with a board that continues to be split on many issues. But he added, "I feel though that these are good people, conscientious people who want to work for the best interest of the district."
The superintendent said it is his hope that the board can continue to work together for unity.
That is the hope of Stepan, too, who frankly admitted he doesn't know if the Bennion vote signals a deepening split on the board. He said he thought the board was moving toward greater accommodation and that its unanimous votes Tuesday night on budget issues, before the Bennion vote, seemed to indicate unity.
Before the contract vote, Bennion also presented his latest proposal in an attempt to mollify east-side patrons who continue to fight the boundary decision.
Bennion suggested that the district's current transfer policy be eased so that up to 10 hardship cases from East and Highland high schools and 15 from West to East could transfer. The current policy only allows transfers with for emotional, mental or physical problems.
Under the proposal, to prevent undue stress on neighborhoods, no more than 25 percent of the incoming freshman class from a neighborhood would be allowed to transfer, Bennion said.
Other points in the superintendent's newest proposal include giving top priority to integrating new students into their schools next year, working toward a more liberal district-wide transfer policy in a few years and establishing a committee to review high school programs.
Bennion said this newest proposal comes after ongoing discussions with neighborhood groups. It supersedes his suggested compromise to phase in open enrollment within two years, which he admitted doesn't have enough support at this time. He said open enrollment, however, should remain a goal.
The board first received the new proposal at the meeting, so it won't come up for discussion until July 12. The board did not discuss the open enrollment proposal. Although 10 patrons had signed up to speak about it, they were called Tuesday and told that it wouldn't be discussed. Last week, the board canceled its hearing on open enrollment.