Douglas County School Board votes to remove Superintendent Corey Wise

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Supporters of Douglas County Schools Superintendent Corey Wise rally in front of the department’s headquarters in Castle Rock on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. Wise’s supporters say he is being forced out of his job by a new conservative majority on the board accused of meeting in secret to make the move – a violation of the Colorado’s open meetings laws.

Last week, the Douglas County School Board President Mike Peterson and vice-chair Christy Williams met privately with Superintendent Corey Wise and gave him an ultimatum: resign or they will fire him. 

Friday night, after three hours of often-heated debate, the board made good on it. The members voted 4-3 to terminate the contract with Wise. 

The move caps off a week full of tension and tumult in the district. On Monday, the minority members of the board, Susan Meek, David Ray and Elizabeth Hanson, held a Zoom meeting to discuss that private meeting, saying it violated Colorado’s open meeting laws. According to the three, there was no board discussion, either public or in a private executive session, no notice of the board majority’s intentions, and no prior discussion with Wise about any problems with his job performance.

Then, Thursday, the district was forced to close schools because more than 1,000 teachers called in absent, many of whom gathered with parents and students to rally outside the district building in Castle Rock that afternoon. They were protesting the board majority’s actions, which included putting Wise’s job on the line and a resolution to rework the district’s equity policy.

Douglas County school board controversy: A timeline of what led to the teacher protest

The Friday meeting got off to a rocky start, after the minority members questioned the validity of the meeting itself and minutes into the meeting a recess was called. 

Another issue of contention was the process in which the majority members were seeking to oust Wise — there was no public comment during the meeting before the board voted on the superintendent’s contract. Ray made a motion to delay the action and allow for public comment, saying that it went against “decades of practice” to how the board operates.

“Due to the meeting last Monday and numerous emails, we have had plenty of public comment,” Peterson said. 

Much of the back and forth of the meeting pivoted on the Zoom call the minority members held on Monday and whether Peterson and Williams did violate open meeting laws and why the board wasn’t aware of Peterson’s push to oust Wise. 

Board member Meeks said she thinks the meeting was illegal, calling it significant and egregious. But she acknowledged the position her and other minority members were in.

“You all have the votes to do what you want to do,” Meeks said. “Have the integrity and the honesty to come together and make those decisions publicly.”

The erosion of trust was a common theme among both the majority and minority board members. 

Wise became superintendent last year and has been with the district for more than 25 years, and was referred to as “beloved” throughout Friday’s meeting. At one point, Wise responded to the board members directly. 

“I love this district. I love this county. It's been my home,” he said. “Let me lead. Let's see what can happen. Challenge me. I like to be the underdog. Let me prove, and if I don't —  then come out and have that conversation, but please don't do it over a weekend.”

But Peterson and the rest of the board majority weren’t swayed by Wise’s comments or the pleading of the minority members to slow the process, take time to talk to the public and not make rash decisions. 

“Just because a leader is loved and respected doesn't mean he has the skills, the vision and the capabilities to lead the large district,” Peterson said before recommending unilateral termination of Wise’s contract. 

Less than 15 minutes later, after last-minute comments from Wise, some tears from one minority board member and additional pleas to postpone the decision, the board voted to fire Wise. 

“I need to be very clear that this decision was not about performance in any way, and that this is politics and its ugliest and purest and most destructive form,” said minority board member Hanson. 

Ray called the decision “the day that you have devastated the education of over 60,000 kids.”

In November, a conservative slate of school board candidates won big in Douglas County, promising more parental control. Immediately, the board took on controversial issues. It eliminated the district mask mandate and passed a new resolution that some worry is the first step in dismantling the district’s equity policy.  The equity policy calls for establishing a system for identifying racist practices and discriminatory behaviors.

Peterson said at the end of the meeting that the next step is to have a work session to start a discussion on replacing the superintendent. 

Dougco students have planned a school walk-out on Monday afternoon in protest over the firing of Wise. 

Previous coverage of the Douglas County School District controversies: