Disagreement over an attempt to remove conflict of interest language from district ethics policy prompted an Olathe Board of Education member to storm out of a board meeting and resulted in him being censured and removed from committee assignments by fellow members. Brian Connell admits he has on occasion allowed his temper to get the better of him in meetings and says it was largely due to frustration over a lack of transparency and behind-the-scenes maneuvering by other board members that some patrons say is a cabal of board members and district contractors.
On May 4, Connell, stormed out of a board meeting after shouting at other board members in frustration.
Connell, in a phone interview with the Sentinel, said he takes responsibility for the outburst.
“I even said that on social media,” he said. “My actions, my words, I’m responsible for that and I wish I had done it differently.”
Ethics, transparency at the heart of the matter
Connell said matters came to a head over revisions to the board’s ethics policy.
His issues with the ethics policy came down to a lack of transparency in the way the committee writing the policy was formed, without — according to him — the entire board being made aware.
Moreover, he said, he was frustrated with the proposed policy — obtained by The Sentinel — which would have whittled the policy down to just four bullet points — none of which would have included language about conflicts of interest.
That language was important, Connell said, because an individual who had been proposed as a candidate to fill the vacancy being left by LeEtta Felter, who is running for mayor of Olathe and is on the Olathe City Council, resigned from her position as a school board member. He said he believes Felter made a deal with Joe Beveridge and Olathe BOE President Shannon Wickliffe to help her get Troy Snyder on the board before she declared her mayoral candidacy. This would “ensure that Felter had a Republican replacement and maintain the appearance of her leaving her position in good hands.”
Snyder — who ultimately was not appointed to the position — is the director of holistic wellness and spiritual life at KidsTLC, an organization with which the district contracts to handle students with behavioral issues and pays some $80,000 in reimbursements for two salaries for a behaviour analyst and an educational programming administrator, as well as $22.50 an hour for 20 paraeducators who work at the facility. All told, Olathe will pay KidsTLC over $500,000 in the coming school year.
Currently there are 147 Olathe students who are in residential treatment at KidsTLC.
Snyder would have been in a position to vote on additional contracts with the organization, and would not have had to recuse himself from those votes under the proposed ethics policy that so incensed Connell.
The KidsTLC contract has long been a sore ethics subject for Connell, because school board president Shannon Wickliffe had been voting to approve the contract even though he worked for KidsTLC as its Chief Development Officer. The ethics policy said school board members will “avoid being placed in a position of conflict of interest and refrain from using my board position for personal and partisan gain.” But Wickliffe would not recuse himself and the majority of the board would not enforce the policy.
KidsTLC confirmed that Wickliffe had very recently resigned. The attempt to get Snyder on the Olathe school board and remove the conflict of interest language from the board ethics policy could easily be seen as trying to keep one or two KidsTLC employees on the board and eliminate further objection to allowing Wickliffe and Snyder to vote on the contract with their employer.
The final policy — which was actually adopted — retained the conflict of interest language.
Connell not the only board member to lose ‘decorum’ but the only one punished
While Connell said he also sent an email the day following his loss of temper to Superintendent of Schools Brent Yeager, the district’s attorney and the board apologizing for his actions the evening before.
At a special meeting, May 17, 2023, the board voted to censure Connell and remove him from committee assignments.
Connell was specifically singled out for his loss of decorum, and while the May meeting was not the first time Connell had — by his own admission — lost his cool, video from the end of the April meeting shows other board members being contentious with Connell — but facing no discipline.
Moreover, member Julie Steele — who called for Connell to resign, claiming he referred to female board members as “missy,” which Connell vehemently denies — recently told a parent to leave the district on social media but, again, apparently faces no repercussion from the board.
As the Sentinel recently reported, Steele answered a critic of the district’s progressive policies including Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) by recommending the parent educate his child in another state.
According to reporting in The Lion, the exchange occurred on Steele’s Facebook page. Parent Cory Richmond, who will soon have children entering Olathe USD 233, criticized the controversial policies adopted by the board. Steele replied:
“Perhaps, if you disagree [with DEI and SEL], you should consider educating your child in another state that more closely aligns with your values.”
Richmond spoke of “dysfunction” on the school board, and claims the board isn’t interested in what parents or taxpayers think. Yet, he said he was taken aback at Steele’s response
“Yes, I was absolutely surprised at that kind of comment from an elected leader to one of her constituents,” Richmond said. “To treat people that way who disagree with you in the community over school policies? It just seemed, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ So yeah, I was very surprised at it.”
Neither Steele, nor Olathe BOE President Shannon Wickliffe responded to a request for comment.