An attorney representing multiple parents and teachers Wednesday evening asked the school board of a west metro integration district to fire its sole principal after submitting a dossier about Kevin Bennett to the board that alleges multiple misdeeds.
The request is the culmination of 18 months of turmoil in the arts-oriented West Metro Education Program that directly educates just over 1,000 students but offers programs for thousands of other students and teachers at 10 suburban member districts plus Minneapolis.
The turmoil began in early 2012 when Principal Kevin Bennett was put on leave and later suspended for two days for several infractions, including using his position to date several subordinates. The upheaval continued with Superintendent Daniel Jett soon placed on leave and later reinstated without discipline, only to resign at the start of the school year effective June 30.
Meanwhile, more than half of WMEP’s board turned over this year, and it’s now examining whether the district should continue, whether it should operate schools, whether it needs a superintendent, and whether it needs to revamp academic leadership.
The dossier assembled for board members suggests that the board is out of touch with what’s happening in the schools and suggests a number of transgressions by Bennett. They include accusations that he’s had multiple affairs with staff members, that staff of the district’s downtown Minneapolis and Crystal schools have difficulty locating him during the workday, that he's lost the confidence of students and staff, and that he promoted a business of his while at a national principals conference to which the district paid his attendance. Bennett has not responded to multiple Star Tribune requests for comment, and walked away from a reporter Wednesday.
"These problems continue and they're serious," Corwin told the eight of 11 board members who attended. Teachers say the turmoil is driving their peers to teach elsewhere, including the president of the faculty union.
The list of accusations was assembled behind the protection of attorney Gregg Corwin, whose retainer is being paid by a group of about 10 staff and parents, several of whom are active in leadership of the district's two schools.the school’s leader. Most opted to remain anonymous, fearing retribution.
“Parents are afraid for their kids. Teachers are concern for their jobs and they’re concerned that they’ll be called racist because [Bennett's] African-American,” Corwin said in an interview.
The dossier represents a stunning turnaround for Bennett, who was named Minnesota’s 2012 middle school principal of the year.
A teacher union survey conducted in 2013 documents a massive disaffection among teaching staff. For example, it found that 87 percent of teachers disagreed with the statement that their principal treated all employees fairly, up from 25 percent in 2011.
One award-winning young WMEP teacher now teaching in another district said in a statement included in the dossier that Bennett played favorites, especially favoring young, attractive female teachers. “KB is a terrible leader and the last person that should be in charge of a school,” said Erin Aulik, the former teacher.
Parents complained that the impact of Bennett’s entanglements with selected female staffers eventually drew scorn among older students. The district had a program oriented toward students that urged them to think responsibly, respectfully and safely, urging them to think twice. “A tweet currently circulating amongst students is, ‘I guess Mr. Bennett didn’t think twice,’ ” wrote Bob Aldrich, who has been an officer in the parent-teacher group. “I had a parent of a fourth grader tell me their child now knows all about adultery. They learned it at school.”
Some parents complain that the board is disengaged with school issues and Jett hasn’t held Bennett accountable. “What does it teach our kids? That right or wrong, it’s no big deal? That rules don’t really matter? That if you’re in charge, you can behave with impunity? What messages might boys internalize, what about girls,” parent Kristin Parker Clay asked the board last year.
Jett also did not respond to requests for comment. Board Vice Chair Julie Sweitzer said Wednesday, “I think the board has been quite engaged with the [WMEP] schools.” She said that any information submitted will be given “serious attention,” but added, “I am not going to talk about any individual employee.”
Complaints involving Bennett have been submitted to the state Board of School Administrators three times. Antoinette Johns, the interim WMEP leave while Jett was on leave, said she referred Bennett’s suspension to the state board. Last August, some parents requested in a letter that the board revoke Bennett’s principal license. Recently, a parent whose daughter was listed on a student Web page singling out “ugliest” WMEP students said she asked the board to investigate what she said was Bennett not following district policy on cyberbullying.
Janet Mohr, the board’s administrator, said it has not taken any disciplinary action involving Bennett that meets the statutory threshold allowing disclosure.
Among other issues, the dossier highlighted rising spending by the district on lawyers, while some faculty and parents have complained of cutbacks in arts programming. Parents also raised issues of whether Bennett's business interests have distracted him, and note that a district employee has been listed as one of his business employees.
Meanwhile, the WMEP board on Wednesday authorized the hiring of Keith Lester, former Brooklyn Center superintendent, from three finalists for interim superintendent to lead the district while member districts reassess their commitments to WMEP and the board decides whether it will continue to operate schools and other programs. Lester formerly was a WMEP board member when superintendents of member districts joined representatives of member school boards on the WMEP board.
One issue for p[arents has been that unlike voter in traditional districts, they can't elect the entire WMEP board. Some get to vote on all members from their home district, one of whom serves on the WMEP board, but that's not always true in Minneapolis, which elects a majority of its members from smaller districts.
(Photo above: Kevin Bennett)