BENNINGTON, VT. (AP) - When former schools superintendent George Sleeman went to prison for embezzlement, folks here figured they had seen the last of him.
Now, he’s back: Sleeman, 78, was elected to the Bennington School District board in a write-in vote last month, stunning those who remember the scandal that led to his downfall. But there’s no law against him serving, and Sleeman _ who says he didn’t know about the write-in campaign that got him elected until it had happened _ says he has paid his dues to society and is on the board to stay.
His election has reopened old wounds in this southern Vermont town, dividing it into those who believe Sleeman deserves a second chance and those who say his presence on the Bennington School District board is inappropriate given his past.
And it has posed the question: At what point does redemption come?
“He served his time and repented his soul,” said Winton Goodrich, associate director of the Vermont School Boards Association. “It’s totally an electorate issue. The voters have spoken. It is what it is.”
A former social studies teacher and guidance counselor, Sleeman rose to become superintendent of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and held the job for 13 years.
But the revelation of a $1.7 million deficit in the school district in 1984 triggered an investigation that led to criminal convictions for Sleeman, the district’s former treasurer and a school board member. Several teachers were stripped of their teaching certifications as a result.
Prosecutors said Sleeman embezzled $4,285, used the money for personal reasons and then lied about it to investigators. In 1989, he was convicted on eight counts of embezzlement and one count of false swearing, sentenced to five to 10 years in jail and ordered to make restitution. He served about 13 months before being released.
That was the end of George Sleeman’s political career. At least, that’s what many thought.
On March 3, Bennington voters _ in Vermont’s traditional Town Meeting day _ elected Sleeman to a three-year term on the Bennington School District board. He got 45 write-in votes, three more than the runner-up, thanks to a campaign organized by local activist Mike Bethel.
Sleeman didn’t know about the write-in candidacy beforehand, according to Bethel and Sleeman, but many here don’t believe that.
Bethel, 57, makes no apologies for putting his friend up.
“It isn’t like he murdered somebody, or ran off with the queen’s daughter,” he said. “He made a mistake and he paid his dues. I got him elected as a school board member, not the treasurer.”
Sleeman’s election spurred an onslaught of letters to the Bennington Banner, eventually prompting Editor James Therrien to stop publishing them. He said he made the decision in part because the tone of the letters had sunk to personal attacks and negativity.
“It’s 20 years ago, but a certain percentage of the emotions are very high. It’s still raw for them,” Therrien said. “I can understand it. There’s some people who’d defend George, and others who never want to see him again.”
Among the critics is Jeanne Conner, 49, a former board member who’s now collecting signatures on petitions calling on Sleeman to resign. She acknowledges that may be wishful thinking.
“If he wants to give his service, go volunteer at an animal shelter or the soup kitchen. But to serve on a board and make financial decisions for the very organization he embezzled money from, I have a huge problem with,” said Conner.
As a board member, Sleeman is one of seven people who makes decisions about Bennington’s three elementary schools. It’s not the same job he held before his conviction _ superintendent of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, which encompasses the towns of Bennington, North Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford.
At an April 6 board meeting, Sleeman actively participated in discussions about a new telephone system, a proposed get-to-know visit to the schools by new board members and the prospect of obtaining federal stimulus money for school projects.
But he kept quiet during the board’s discussion about criminal record background checks for school district employees.
In an interview after the meeting, he said he knew there would be controversy over his election but that there will be “no problems” with him this time. He said people are entitled to their opinions and that he’s not out to change anyone’s mind.
“I’ve paid my dues to society. That’s it. I think I have a lot to offer to the school district,” Sleeman said.
Bethel stands by him.
“George is a very smart man. He deserves a second chance in life,” he said. “Some people, you can’t give a second chance to. But as long as you’re not a danger to people, you deserve a second chance.”
Not everyone sees it that way.
“The word `redemption’ has not been talked about much, at least by my parishioners,” said Mary Lee-Clark, pastor of the Second Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. “These are folks that remember that time as being incredibly painful. Some of them lost jobs, or saw their work discredited, and it’s bringing that back.
“I think everyone is redeemable. But I don’t know if there’s evidence of him living out that idea.”