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Documents reveal 'verbal assault' led to Bozeman Schools superintendent's departure

Gallatin High Ribbon Cutting

Bozeman Public Schools Superintendent Bob Connors speaks at a dedication ceremony for Bozeman's newest high school, Gallatin High, on Monday afternoon, Aug. 17, 2020.

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A “verbal assault” and perceived retaliatory actions from former Superintendent Bob Connors toward other employees led to his being placed on administrative leave last fall and the ultimate termination of his contract.

An incident on Oct. 19 involved Connors and two unnamed district administrators who reported he verbally assaulted them after a meeting with top district officials, according to documents obtained by the Chronicle.

“The incident, which involved an administrator, may have resulted in bullying, harassment, or intimidation, and/or created a hostile work environment,” Mike Waterman, the Bozeman School District’s director of business services, wrote in a letter to the school board on Oct. 20.

The incident, which led to Connors being placed on administrative leave, was detailed in documents provided to the Chronicle this week. The documents include letters from the two individuals — identified as A and B due to privacy concerns — and screenshots from text messages and emails detailing the events and perceived retaliation from Connors.

One individual described what they felt was a long-running pattern of negative behavior against them by Connors.

The documents were released to the paper after it filed a lawsuit against the school district on Nov. 20 for the release of minutes from two closed meetings and documents related to Connors’ suspension.

Citing privacy concerns, the school board had refrained from releasing details on the alleged policy violation and Connors’ subsequent suspension and the termination of his contract. However, attorneys for the Chronicle and the district ultimately negotiated the release of nearly 50 pages related to the superintendent’s actions.

“The Chronicle took the legal steps available when a public entity violates the constitutional right to know,” said Martha Sheehy, the attorney representing the paper, on Tuesday.

With the release of the redacted documents, the Chronicle decided not to seek the closed session minutes and the lawsuit will be dismissed.

In an emailed statement on Tuesday, David Paoli, an attorney representing Bob Connors, said Connors’ only regret from his tenure was to no longer be working with the students, teachers and staff of the district.

“There is no question that Bob Connors did not violate any district policy of any sort and the Board has found that he has not violated any policy and an independent third party investigation found no policy violation,” Paoli said. “Unfortunately, minor interpersonal communications during these stressful times with his staff were blown out of proportion and allowed to develop into an unfortunate situation.”

School Board Chair Sandy Wilson said the board was committed to ensuring a safe workplace, which was reflected in its polices and procedures and in the course of actions it took last fall.

“The board really takes seriously the safety and well being of our staff and students,” she said.

Coronavirus Press Conference

Bozeman Superintendent Bob Connors speaks during a press conference addressing coronavirus Friday, March 13, 2020, at the Gallatin County Courthouse in Bozeman.

The incidents

According to the accounts of individuals A and B, on Oct. 19, toward the end of a meeting involving top district officials, individual B suggested brainstorming how they could help support building principals who were “struggling and feeling disconnected.” Individual B mentioned ongoing conversations about administrators attending meetings with school principals.

Connors became frustrated and short in his response to B, according to the documents. Individuals A and B said they attempted to explain the importance of administrators attending those meetings, and that they were not singling out Connors. Both individuals reported that Connors repeatedly talked over B.

At one point, “Bob became visibly upset, refused to listen to our attempts to clarify and move the conversation forward and kept interrupting B … The conversation ended awkwardly and abruptly,” A wrote.

Individual A said they were “very alarmed by how the meeting ended,” and exchanged text messages with Steve Johnson, who was deputy superintendent of operations at the time.

When the meeting wrapped, B reported feeling “very upset that I was, once again, the target of (Connors’) displaced annoyance.”

Shortly after the meeting ended, Connors entered A’s office and “began yelling at me for approximately five minutes,” the individual reported.

Connors told the individual they had “undermined his authority in a public meeting and were evaluating his performance,” according to A. Connors told A they could “expect the same in return” and “slammed” a book on their desk called “Effective School Board Meetings” and told them to read it.

Individual A reported feeling “very surprised and confused” and “fear and frustration” during the incident.

“I was very alarmed at the irrational nature of the interaction with Bob where he wouldn’t allow me to speak, continued to yell over me and repeatedly shut down any attempts at a calm dialogue,” A wrote.

“To have the superintendent direct that anger and yelling directly at me and a colleague left me a bit shell-shocked to say the least,” A wrote. “The irrational nature of the events, and the intensity of the events, leave me embarrassed to say that I’m scared.”

After leaving A’s office, Connors then went to B’s office, according to the documents. Individual A could hear Connors yelling.

B reported that Connors “stood inside my doorway with the door mostly closed and started yelling loudly, pointing and shaking his finger at me,” B wrote. “… This was a traumatic event: I have never, in my professional career, been attacked like this. I felt verbally assaulted by his tone and demeanor.”

B added they did not feel physically threatened because Connors remained near the door but if he had been closer, then they would have felt physically threatened.

Individual B said in their many years in the central office, they felt the high level meetings were a safe place to operate.

“I no longer think that,” B wrote. “… Monday’s episode and succeeding events have been personally disturbing and professionally unprecedented. I do not feel safe. To me, this casts a troubling doubt on the current relationship between the superintendent and school district professionals.”

Individual B saw the incident as part of a larger pattern in their interactions with Connors.

B reported that, during spring break of 2020, Connors “specifically told me not to develop a plan for remote learning. There was a remote meeting during which Bob was hostile to me, specifically.”

B also outlined what they perceived as a retaliatory move by Connors in regard to information provided by the former superintendent to the Chronicle shortly after the incident.

In an Oct. 21 story about racial equity education in the schools, Connors told the Chronicle that he had appointed a district official “to look at different ways the district could improve its equity work.”

B wrote in an email to A and Johnson on Oct. 22 that it was not the case. B said Connors had been “openly hostile to me” at a meeting in July when discussing an Equity Task Force and told B after the meeting that he was taking it over.

“For me, this is a pattern of behavior directed at me by the superintendent,” B wrote.

Around 10:39 a.m. on the day of the incident, Connors sent both A and B a group text that read: “I apologize for my behavior this morning. It was not professional and I will try not to allow that to happen again. It really had nothing to do with you two. Again, I’m sorry.”

Individual A reported feeling nervous and afraid “to go to work not knowing if Bob would be there or not” on Oct. 20, the day after the incident.

Connors texted top district officials on Oct. 20 that he would be out of the office to get a COVID-19 test that day. He wound up taking sick leave for COVID-19 symptoms from Oct. 19 to Oct. 30, according to the documents.

Individuals A and B met with Johnson twice on Oct. 20 to process and discuss next steps. They decided to report the incident to the school board for investigation using a third party who was aware of the events.

Later that day, both A and B reported, Connors called them on their cell phones after they had already left the office. Neither answered and he didn’t leave a message or text or email them.

The next day, Oct. 21, during a discussion about the district’s instructional models in a meeting with school principals, Connors said he had tried to call A and B the previous night to discuss it.

Both A and B reported they felt it could have been a retaliatory remark towards them.

Individuals A and B were notified that afternoon by Johnson and Waterman that the board was moving forward with an investigation and that Connors had been made aware of the report.

Willson School File

The Bozeman Public Schools administrative offices are held at Willson School, photographed on Feb. 9, 2021.

School board response

On Nov. 2, two weeks after the incident, the school board voted unanimously to place Connors on paid administrative leave pending a performance evaluation. They held a closed session for about seven-and-a-half hours before reaching the decision. Deputy Superintendents Johnson, Marilyn King and Casey Bertram were appointed as interim co-superintendents.

On Nov. 3, the Chronicle filed a records request to obtain a copy of the closed session meeting record and documents related to the alleged policy violation. The next day, the district responded with letter saying closed executive session minutes could only be released by court order and documents related to the policy violation were protected from public disclosure.

Further details were not released until documents were provided to the Chronicle this week.

The documents show that on Nov. 11, Wilson sent Connors a formal letter of reprimand concerning the “loud and angry exchange” with both A and B. The incidents resulted in a complaint alleging violation of a district policy on bullying, harassment and intimidation.

According to the letter, it was determined his behavior did not “rise to the level of a violation” of that policy, but his “behavior was unprofessional and entirely unacceptable for the Superintendent of the District” and was a “failure of leadership.”

The letter also said the incident had harmed his professional relationship with the two high level staffers “to the extent that it is not currently possible for you to perform the duties of the Superintendent of the District.”

Paoli, Connors’ attorney, said the Nov. 11 letter from the board and the full payment of his salary and benefits through his contract end was evidence that “he did not violate any district policy, nor engage in any conduct that was detrimental in any way to the district.”

“These stressful times allowed a raised voice with colleagues to become a cause of concern for the Board of Trustees, who only several months prior had given Bob a full vote of confidence and extended his contract,” Paoli said. “... Bob would much rather be working in the district for the students rather than departing under these terms.”

On Jan. 20, the school board approved a severance package worth more than $290,000. The payment includes money Connors would have made if he had remained employed with the school district until his contract was scheduled to end on June 30, 2022.

The package, which comes from the district’s general fund, also includes vacation and unused sick time.

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

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