Willson School File

The Bozeman Public Schools adminastrative offices are held at Willson School, photographed on Feb. 9.

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The Bozeman School Board leadership said the district has policies and procedures in place that prioritize creating a safe work environment as it looks toward hiring the next permanent superintendent for the district.

The previous superintendent Bob Connors was placed on administrative leave and his contract was ultimately terminated following an incident of “verbal assault.”

Greg Neil, the board’s vice chair, said an incident like what occurred with Connors was “something that will not happen again.”

Two unnamed district administrators reported that Connors he verbally assaulted them on Oct. 19 after a meeting. They also outlined perceived retaliatory actions. The incident led to Connors being placed on administrative leave in November and the termination of his contract in January.

The board voted in February to postpone launching a nationwide search for the next superintendent, and instead appointed Deputy Superintendent Casey Bertram as the interim superintendent for the 2021-2022 school year.

Bertram and Deputy Superintendent Marilyn King will continue serving as interim co-superintendents until June 30. The process to hire the next permanent superintendent is likely to begin in fall 2021.

Board Chairman Sandy Wilson said the board has not had conversations around how the next superintendent search will be conducted but felt confident the district’s policies and input from the district employees and the community would ensure the best person was hired.

“The process we set up to do our search and the community engagement will be very important to finding someone who will be a good fit for our students, staff, admin., families and community,” Wilson said.

Wilson and Neil, who both said they were speaking as individuals and not for the board, said the district had policies and procedures in place to ensure and prioritize staff safety.

“I go back to the policies we have in place. We can’t control what every human being does but we do have policies in place that keep our staff safe and incidents are dealt with in accordance to the policies we have in place,” Neil said.

The board recently did a year-long overhaul of its policies with the support of the Montana School Board Association. The review included district personnel policies.

The policy review was in place before the incident with Connors took place.

In a Jan. 11 meeting, the school board discussed the personnel series changes. One of the recommendations was to add a policy on whistleblowing and retaliation. The policy said when district employees know of instances of wrongful conduct, like theft, misuse of authority, fraud, violation of law and serious violation of district policy, they should report it and the board would not tolerate instances of retaliation.

“We have everything we need to have in place for staff and teachers to feel there’s a process in place for them,” Wilson said.

Wilson and Neil said a candidate that can ensure a safe working environment is important in any candidate they consider and always has been in previous searches.

“Everything starts with staff safety, that’s very basic,” Neil said. “I think that we’ve always had that in place and its not something that’s new or innovative on our part.”

Wilson and Neil said they had no personal concerns around hiring an outside candidate who may not be familiar to the board into the permanent position.

Wilson, who was vice-chair during the process that hired Connors, pointed to previous superintendents like Kirk Miller who were outside hires and did well in the role.

“I think that people from outside of the district will bring their own set of skillsets,” she said.

Neil said his mind was “very wide open” to the possibility of hiring an outside candidate that could lead the district and is was not “uncommon practice to bring in an outside candidate to be a new leader.”

Neil also said he didn’t anticipate the district would have hard time attracting candidates to apply to the superintendent position despite the controversy around Connors.

“Any candidate that understands a public school has a full understanding that things don’t always work out,” said Neil, who was the newest trustee during Connors’ superintendent search. “… I don’t have concerns with outside candidates considering Bozeman as a viable option based on what we experienced in the last few months.”

Mike Waterman, director of business services with the district, said it’s up to the board to outline the hiring process for the superintendent.

Waterman said by law the district can offer someone up to a three-year contract. Connors came in on a two-year contract and, within his first year, the school board decided to extend it one more year, he said.

Connors had about a year-and-a-half left of his contract when the board voted on the severance package in January.

Like in previous searches, a future candidate is likely to meet with principals, teachers, students and administrators, Wilson said. In the last search, a group of people from the area provided feedback on the final interviews, she said.

“Community input will be really important during this process,” Wilson said.

The board hasn’t started designing the process yet, but Wilson said it would involve “not just staff and teachers but community too because they’re taxpayers.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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