A case involving whether four Douglas County school board members broke the state’s open meeting or sunshine laws will not be decided by a jury, but by the judge who initially ruled that there’s evidence to demonstrate the four broke the law.
The school board members had requested a jury trial, but Douglas County District Court Judge Jeffrey Holmes on Tuesday denied the request because they aren’t being sued for monetary damages. In addition, Holmes wrote that the defendants waived their right to a jury trial by failing to file a jury fee by the state-mandated deadline.
Highlands Ranch resident and now state Democratic Representative Robert Marshall sued four board members Mike Peterson, Becky Myers, Kaylee Winegar and Christy Williams last year, alleging that they engaged in one-on-one meetings to collectively decide to fire former superintendent Corey Wise.
Under Colorado’s open meetings law, when three or more members of a local board (or a quorum if that’s less than three) discuss public business or a potential formal action, their meeting must be announced 24 hours in advance and open to the public.
Marshall is seeking an admission of guilt, a ruling to require the board to discuss board matters in public meetings, and $66,000 in legal fees.
Earlier this month, the four board members rejected a settlement deal, which included admitting that they had violated Colorado Open Meetings Laws.
The district paid Wise more than $830,000 to settle discrimination and retaliation claims.
After a preliminary injunction hearing last year, Holmes ordered the four board members to follow the law and prohibited them from holding one-on-one meetings.
According to the order by Holmes, “the evidence indicates that four members of the board collectively committed, outside of public meetings, to the termination of (Superintendent Corey) Wise’s employment.”
“Circumventing the statute by a series of private one-on-one meetings at which public business is discussed and/or decisions reached is a violation of the purpose of the statute, not just its spirit,” he wrote.
The board members have maintained they didn’t do anything illegal and the decision to fire Wise was made during a public vote. At a May 8 board meeting, all four said they didn’t break the law.
“I would never give advice to my child to admit guilt when they didn’t feel like they were guilty,” said board member Christy Williams.
Board member Kaylee Winegar asked Marshall to drop the suit to “stop wasting taxpayer dollars.”
Marshall said in a letter to the board that he has tried to keep down costs but the “unreasonableness” of the defendants in fighting the case has escalated costs astronomically.
Invoices obtained by members of the community and reviewed by CPR News show the district has paid nearly $100,000 for legal fees up through the beginning of March. Those costs are expected to rise. Critics of the board majority have said failing to admit a violation of the law and accept the settlement will simply further divide the community.
At the May 8 board meeting, the other three board members opposed rejecting the settlement.
“Continuing this lawsuit is selfish, a waste of taxpayer money,” said board member Susan Meek. “It takes resources away from students and is just plain wrong.”
Just last week, board member Elizabeth Hanson abruptly resigned, citing the rejection of the settlement as one reason for leaving.
The pre-trial conference is Friday. The trial is expected in mid-June.
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