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E-K principal’s supporters get silence treatment at board meeting

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RUSSELL — Approximately 45 community members attended the Edwards-Knox Central School District Board of Education meeting Monday evening, but they weren’t allowed to comment on the job status of high school Principal Michelle J. Varian.

Interviewed after the meeting, Mrs. Varian said the room was filled with supporters who should have been allowed to speak on her behalf. The board is expected to make a decision Jan. 28 on whether to fire Mrs. Varian, who was placed on administrative leave in mid December for undisclosed reasons.

“I have students, staff and community members rallying around me,” Mrs. Varian said. “Basically, they (the school board) said nobody has the right to come to a meeting and say something good about anyone.”

The board’s written guidelines, published on the district website, only prohibit derogatory comments about staff members from being made during public comment, she said.

Prior to public comment, board President Theresa Hogle said the board’s attorney, Andrew W. Silver, Canton, advised them to prohibit any comments related to a staff member, whether it was positive or negative.

Allowing comments related to personnel matters could make the board liable for defamation, Mrs. Hogle said.

“We will not take public comment, positive or negative, about any employee,” she told audience members who gathered on cafeteria seats.

Mrs. Hogle noted that the board has received numerous letters and told the audience they will be read by board members.

“We do read all the letters we get, but if it’s about a person, we’re not allowed to speak about it,” Mrs. Hogle said.

Chalaine M. Archer, an outspoken supporter of Mrs. Varian, urged the nine-member board to consider the stack of letters.

“We don’t want to overwhelm you all at once. Obviously you know why we are here,” she said.

District officials have refused to disclose why Mrs. Varian was placed on administrative leave in mid December. Mrs. Varian has also declined to discuss the situation.

She said she has been heartened by the support she’s received, but noted that much of the support has “been behind closed doors.”

“There’s very little protection for non-tenured administrators,” Mrs. Varian said.

She has worked as the district’s 7th to 12th grade principal since July 2010.

“I’m just leaving it in the board’s hands to decide what’s best for the students, the staff and the community,” Mrs. Varian said. “That’s their responsibility and I’ll stand by their decision.”

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