Opinion: Stearns decries ‘ommission of facts’ in Independent story
In the June 23, 2014, article labeled “ACSU in search of new business manager,” the Addison Independent printed “Sharon Stearns, who had resigned in May of 2011 after having been placed on administrative leave.” With the legal process complete, I can finally respond to clarify the omission of facts that continue to be printed.
First, I was business manager for nine years, receiving appreciation from three superintendents, school board members, the auditors, and the Vermont Department of Education for my work for nine schools. Superintendent Lee Sease repeatedly told me I was the best business manager he had ever worked with.
In 2010, the supervisory union school board became aware of leadership issues and behaviors through the public resignation of a central office administrator. The board began a series of steps to address concerns. A very difficult work climate continued, and in late 2010, I reported concerns to board members about the superintendent supervising staff directly that restricted oversight of financial work, a violation of state law by mailing postcards rather than annual report budgets to the public, and being yelled at in the office by the superintendent to quiet my concerns.
Two central office staff members reported safety concerns to school board members regarding the central office after witnessing several superintendent communications with me.
In very early, January 2011, Superintendent Lee Sease forced me out of my job, which was under a two-year contract, citing I could not be a member of his team and demanding a gag order about ACSU.
I wrote to the school board, citing a list of concerns and requested an investigation into the superintendent’s conduct per district policy. The supervisory union board left me on paid leave for five months and mentioned superintendent threats of legal action. Meanwhile, the superintendent gathered as many personality complaints as he could against me, primarily from those I had reported in the office for violating law, rule, policy/procedure, and this list was shared with boards and the newspaper.
I had paid the ultimate price for being a whistleblower in reporting legal and financial issues to protect the public, and the response was classic textbook material (ruin the messenger). I received many calls of support urging me to continue the fight for what was right. Addison Independent stories continued leaving out the law violation facts and adding personality accusations I had not heard before. I awaited the board’s action.
A board committee finally contacted me and asked me to return to work. The board had no plan at that time to rectify the law issues, to ensure the superintendent’s office was a safe place from threatening behavior despite at least four employee reports, and they wanted me to be coached. I shook my head in disbelief at the board. When I received a letter demanding I return to work, I resigned citing Vermont law and district policy not being followed.
With the law issues still unresolved, I filed a lawsuit to bring awareness to the situation. One year later, two school boards complied with the law by having the public vote not to receive mailed annual reports. One of my goals had been accomplished.
The next goals were to receive the investigation results and a letter stating I should not have been placed on leave so I could work again. With each goal accomplished, I settled the lawsuit and used the funds, that basically equaled the second year’s contract, to pay legal fees and for my master’s degree in accounting. I recently became a Certified Public Accountant, a position that promotes strong ethics.
In closing, the Addison Independent had access to the lawsuit, including the report of violation of law and the subsequent rectifying public votes. Why does the Addison Independent continue to print only that I was put on administrative leave and resigned, when in fact, I was put on administrative leave, asked to return to work, and then resigned citing safety and violation of law issues? Perhaps because it sells papers and they have no conscience for what it does to a person who did the right thing in some very difficult circumstances. The Rutland Herald’s article rightfully indicated the school district apology. In the future, my hope is the Addison Independent will do the right thing, too. The public deserves to know the truth about their publicly funded school system.
Sharon L. Stearns, CPA, MSA
Editor’s note: We regret that Sharon Stearns did not feel like she was treated fairly in the Independent, and we recognize that it can be difficult when a person is caught up in an ongoing news story in which her name appears.
In looking back at our coverage of this particular news story, we see that Ms. Stearns’ name appeared in 14 stories in the past four years — four stories were about her replacements at the school district (there have been three), two addressed Lee Sease’s lawsuit against the ACSU, three were about Sease’s replacement, one covered the departure of a third highly placed ACSU official, and four dealt with Stearns’ own lawsuit against the ACSU. We believe we gave a fair voice to Stearns, even when she declined to speak to the newspaper directly and directed all calls to her lawyer. We also note that, regarding the school district apology, we published more extensively from that apology than did the newspaper Stearns mentions, and in addition we printed in full the written statement that Stearns provided at the time she settled her lawsuit with the school district.
We are glad to get this opportunity for Stearns to tell her side of the story in her own words here in the Independent.
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