Lawsuit filed over Douglas County’s firing of superintendent

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.

A Highlands Ranch resident has filed a lawsuit against four members of the school district’s board, alleging they broke Colorado’s open meetings law during discussions that led up to the termination of the superintendent. 

The lawsuit was filed in Douglas County district court Friday in an unsuccessful attempt to halt an emergency board meeting that afternoon. That meeting resulted in the board firing Superintendent Corey Wise, who has worked for the school district for 26 years, in a 4 to 3 vote.

The drama over the decision to remove Wise has captured the attention of thousands of residents in the deeply divided district, and beyond. Schools were closed Thursday due to a widespread teacher walkout, and a student protest is planned Monday.

“It's just the rule of law,” said Robert Marshall, the attorney who filed the lawsuit. Marshall raised children in the district and is an attorney who worked for the U.S. Marine Corps for 28 years. “The thing that always bugs me is people not following the law and not doing things ethically and morally right.”

Douglas County Schools did not have a response to the lawsuit in time for this story.

At issue is how the board’s four newly elected members — Mike Peterson, Becky Myers, Kaylee Winegar and Christy Williams — reached their decision about Wise. His firing is opposed by three other board members — Susan Meek, David Ray and Elizabeth Hanson — who say they were left out of conversations ahead of Friday.

Under Colorado’s open meetings law, when three or more members of an elected board (or a quorum if that’s less than three) discuss public business or a potential formal action, their meeting must be noticed and open to the public.

Wise’s supporters say the board majority reached its decision in secret, without going through that step.  

At the Friday board meeting, the four conservative board members denied that they ever met as a group outside of public meetings.

“At no time was I with more than one other director at any given moment,” said board member Christy Williams. “My phone calls were only between myself and one other at a time.”

Williams said after having separate phone conversations with the other majority members, “I felt it would be kind and compassionate to have a conversation (with Wise) about our concerns privately. We were not secretive.”

Williams and board president Mike Peterson met together with Wise in late January to let him know they wanted to move the district in a different direction. The school board members supporting Wise say he was issued an ultimatum — resign or the board would replace him. 

Peterson, however, said that during their conversation, Wise was not ordered to quit, but instead, “there was a discussion of all the options available in this contract, including his ability to terminate it… And then there was an idea that you could resign.”

After that private meeting with Wise, Peterson and Williams called the board members who hadn’t been part of earlier discussions – Meek, Ray and Hanson – to inform them what had transpired. Peterson said all of this was intended as a start of a discussion of Wise’s contract and the future of the district.

“There was no deceit,” said Peterson.

Two by two decision-making?

However, the lawsuit argues that using a series of two-person meetings to come to a collective decision — something the suit calls a “walking quorum” or a “daisy chain” of communication — goes against the spirit of the open meetings law.

The suit acknowledges that Colorado’s courts do not appear to have ever addressed this particular issue before, but notes that judges in other states have found that weaving together multiple individual meetings to come to a collective decision is the same as if all the individuals have met together.

And it cites a Colorado Supreme Court decision that states a public body’s meeting isn’t in compliance with the open meetings law if “it is held merely to ‘rubber stamp’ previously decided issues.”

Marshall argues that decisions made at a meeting that’s simply called to “ratify illegal conduct” can still be undone.

“Do we have a legal possibility of getting Mr. Wise reinstated? Yeah. I don't know if that's what he wants or anything, but yes.”

Ultimately, he’d like a court ruling to act as a warning to board members, “which is exactly what that law is intended to do — is to not to destroy local governments, but to make them follow the law.”

A board split by divisions

The divisions on the current Douglas County school board go back to the November election, when Peterson, Myers, Winegar, and Williams won their seats. The four ran as a unified slate they called “Kids First,” with the goal of eliminating mask mandates, giving parents more power and reevaluating the district’s equity policy.

Their colleagues, Meek, Ray and Hanson, question why the Kids First board members didn’t call an executive session to discuss concerns about Wise. They are also concerned that a district policy that requires employees be notified if they are performing below standards and give them the option of resigning or working to improve – wasn’t followed in his case.

The three held a public Zoom meeting on Jan. 31 to disclose how they’d been informed that the board majority had come to an agreement on terminating Wise. About 1,300 people tuned in.

During the meeting they also claimed Peterson and Williams had met privately with an outside legal counsel for the board, Will Trachman, the previous week to discuss matters related to Superintendent Wise’s employment.

None of the three board members on the Zoom call was given notice of that meeting with outside counsel, nor received a summary of what advice was sought.

“The three board members on the Jan. 31, 2022, meeting indicated that defendants Peterson and Williams presented the decision of the defendants to remove the Superintendent as a fait accompli,” the suit reads.

Other school boards weigh in

The controversy in Douglas County has attracted attention across Colorado.

More than 80 school board presidents and vice presidents from other districts have signed onto a letter so far highlighting their concerns about the way the termination was handled.

Board members from districts in Summit County, Boulder Valley, Englewood, Aurora, Eagle County, Denver and others said they were “shocked and disappointed by the unprecedented” action to terminate Superintendent Wise.

The letter notes that Wise dedicated more than 25 years to the district as a teacher and administrator, “which deserves to be celebrated.”

“Removing an effective superintendent like Corey Wise without cause, without opportunity for public engagement, and despite strong and vocal pushback from teachers, students, and staff is a failure of governance,” the letter states.

It also calls for the Douglas County school board to use a transparent process, in full compliance with the law, as they select the next leader for the district.