Douglas County School District settles with ousted superintendent Corey Wise over complaint

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Former Douglas County Schools Superintendent Corey Wise at the CPR News studios in Denver on Thursday, April14, 2022.

Updated April 17, 9:20 p.m.

Corey Wise, a popular former superintendent of Douglas County School District, and the district have reached a settlement in a discrimination and retaliation complaint against the district and four members of the school board more than a year after he was fired by the board’s new majority.

The district paid Wise more than $832,000 in the settlement — $270,000 owed to him for the remainder of his superintendent contract was paid by the district and an additional $562,000 in settlement money to resolve the claims stemming from his termination. The settlement money came from the district’s insurance policies. No funds from the settlment were diverted from students, according to the settlement.

“I feel validated and I feel vindicated that we won,” he said. “This settlement shows they discriminated against me and it shows that they discriminated against me for protecting students that needed the protection.” 

He said his complaint and the settlement send a message that where school boards and politics intersect, it ends up hurting marginalized students. 

“It’s a clear statement that there's consequences for politicizing education. There's consequence for discriminating and retaliating against individuals,” Wise said. 

Attorney Iris Halpern, who represented Wise, agrees about the underlying message. She said it comes  at a particular moment in time when school boards across the country are being targeted by political forces, that there is financial fallout to acting out politicized agendas that target marginalized students.

“We have to think about this settlement as sending a message not only to Douglas County, that it should be prioritizing education in students, but to other counties across the country where this might be happening, where education has become politicized, has been made divisive by an agenda that seeks to vilify minorities and the people who have the least support and power historically within these systems.”

She said the politicization of board’s like Douglas County’s create huge amounts of hostility in the community.

“It's disturbing to see the anger and the violence and the divisiveness that they intentionally employed and instituted and germinated in the community in order to further their political agendas. But it's happening across the country.” 

Two board members responded in a statement the evening after the settlement was announced. Board president Mike Peterson said he voted to terminate Wise due to a lack of competency and was paid out in accordance with his contract.

“In response to threatened civil rights litigation, the school district’s insurance provider agreed to settle with him,” Peterson stated. “Per the settlement agreement, the former superintendent has agreed this is not an admission of liability on the part of the school district.” 

Board vice-president Christy Williams said she felt Wise was unable to meet the requirements of an efficient and effective leader.

“I’m thankful we can finally move forward and put the focus back on our students and staff.”

Board member Susan Meek clarified that the board voted to terminate Wise’s contract without cause. She said stating that he was fired due to incompetence is not true based on the board's motion.

“Had there been evidence of incompetence, it would have been brought forward at the special board meeting on Feb. 4, 2022. And had there been incompetence, the district and taxpayer resources that were spent over the past 14 months would have been saved.”

“Our community is sick and tired of politics seeping into our school district. Our students and the community deserve better.”

Wise claimed discrimination and retaliation for advocating for students with disabilities and minority youth, in violation of First Amendment, due process-rights and multiple state and federal civil rights laws. His complaint was filed against the district and the board’s conservative majority: Becky Myers, Mike Peterson, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar.

The district denied any liability regarding the allegations. The discrimination and retaliation complaint filed last April says that his firing was retribution for his attempts to protect students' civil rights by supporting masking in schools to protect students with disabilities and for his advocacy of the district’s equity policy on behalf of protected classes such as students with disabilities, youth and staff of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Before the board that fired him was elected, a new county board of health issued an order making masks optional in schools. The district, along with several families, filed a lawsuit alleging the order violated the civil rights of students with disabilities. A judge ruled in the district’s favor. The four conservative board members who voted to oust Wise were elected in the Nov, 21, 2021, election.  One of their first actions was to drop the mask mandate.

A month later the majority voted to change the equity policy that had been adopted the previous year. The same day, 65 principals and central office staff ask the board to keep the equity policy intact.

“Violating my civil rights when I stood up, and we stood up, for those students who have disabilities and those students who are most at risk, is not OK,” he told CPR when he announced his complaint.

 Wise’s February 2022 firing sent shockwaves through the community and state.

The day before Wise was fired, more than 1,000 teachers called out sick and school was canceled. That was followed by student walkouts. Eighty current and former state school board of directors signed a letter admonishing the board majority. The other three board members criticized the decision for lacking public input and the way the decision was made.

Eli Imadali for CPR News
Students cheer during a walkout at Highlands Ranch High School on Monday, Fab. 7, 2022 to protest the firing of former Douglas County School District Superintendent Corey Wise and other recent decisions made by the conservative-majority school board.

Thousands signed a petition to recall the board members who voted to remove Wise.

The decision to fire Wise came under enhanced scrutiny after an audio tape surfaced of two board members meeting with the superintendent at a coffee house to give him an ultimatum: Either resign or be fired.  This added fuel to the allegation some of the board members held one-on-one meetings in violation of Colorado’s open meetings law to come to a decision to oust Wise.

Wise was a 26-year veteran educator who began his career in Douglas County. He claimed the board’s mid-year termination caused “pain, suffering, anxiety, and depression” and greatly impacted his personal and family life. Wise said this weekend his life was “turned upside down,” but the outpouring of support he received from teachers and families helped. 

 Wise now works for the Cherry Creek School District.

Costly fallout for district from Wise’s termination still underway

Highlands Ranch resident and district parent Tiffany Baker is pleased that Wise received a settlement. She believes as superintendent, he handled himself in a non-partisan way, “which is what this district needed.”

 “I’m happy with the results because of his advocacy for students and staff that are LGBTQ and students who have special health needs,” she said. “I feel like he was absolutely unduly fired and I hope that does not happen again to the current superintendent or future superintendents. The school board needs to be held accountable.”

While this may close a chapter for Wise personally, fallout surrounding the termination is far from over.

Two top administrators resigned citing Wise’s firing and politics of the school board, which cost the district money to replace.

Amid the turmoil of board politics, the district also narrowly lost a school tax measure to give teachers a raise.

A lawsuit alleging the four members of the board majority broke Colorado’s open meetings law is still pending. Highlands Ranch resident Bob Marshall believes if the district had settled with him months ago, it would have done a lot to build trust in those who typically would have voted for the ballot measure.

The Douglas County School District board meets to name a new superintendent, Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

In his lawsuit, a district judge ruled the board’s private arrangement to oust Wise violated that law. Marshall is asking that the court’s temporary order that the board members follow the open meetings law be made permanent, though a proposed settlement makes some concessions for how they can meet. Marshall, now a representative in the state house, also wants the four members to admit they broke the law.

“It's important for people to follow the law to have trust and confidence in our government,” he said.  

According to documents Baker obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act, as of March 4, the district has paid two law firms more than $180,000 to fight the open records lawsuit case.

“Their politics has cost us a lot,” Baker said.

Wise has future hopes for Douglas County

Wise said the chapter is closing for him but he still deeply cares about the Douglas County district. He hopes the settlement is an opportunity for the board to reflect, reject bias, and unify the community.

“Get out of the politics and lead the entire community,” said Wise. “Bring them together. You have three other board members. You have seven total. Find the common together. They can do this if they're willing to.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to include the response from three Douglas County School Board members.