Woodland Park school board has ‘chilled’ free speech and violated open meetings law, according to Colorado teachers union lawsuit

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Pikes Peak dominates the view from Woodland Park High School in Teller County, April 12, 2023.

Updated Aug. 11 at 2:50 p.m.

Colorado’s largest teachers union and its local affiliate have filed a federal lawsuit against the Woodland Park School District and the district’s board of education.

The lawsuit alleges the district and board have "chilled" teachers’ First Amendment rights to free speech and free association and violated state open meetings laws when it revised a district policy and effectively instituted a gag order against teachers.

The Woodland Park Education Association, a local affiliate of the Colorado Education Association, and its president, Nate Owen, filed the 21-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver on Thursday.

Woodland Park, just northwest of Colorado Springs, is a small school district that’s drawn national attention for a series of policy changes — big ones that include mental health staffing and social studies curriculum and a ban on teachers speaking to the media without prior approval from the superintendent. 

The lawsuit asks the court to strike down the policy that punishes school-based employees if they speak publicly as private citizens about matters of public concern about the school district as unconstitutional. It claims district employees have a federal right to make statements and social media posts about their employment as private citizens on matters of public concern and should not be disciplined, terminated or retaliated against.

It also states that the way in which the ban policy was enacted violates Colorado open meetings law. 

The lawsuit also alleges that forcing members to join an organization and paying for their membership is unconstitutional and unlawful use of taxpayer money. It wants the practice, which it claims is a violation of the First Amendment right to free association, stopped.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Woodland Park High School math teach teacher Nate Owen, who is also leader of the the Woodland Park Education Association, the local teachers union, takes notes during a school board meeting April 12, 2023.

Owen — the president of the Woodland Park Education Association, a math and science teacher, and a plaintiff in the lawsuit — was unable to speak to the media about the lawsuit because of the ban on speaking to the press and a fear of retaliation or termination.

About 35 percent of teachers quit at the end of a turbulent school year in which many teachers felt ignored and demeaned by the conservative board that was elected to office in 2021. Over the last year and a half, school board meetings have been packed and sometimes turbulent.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association, said that Woodland Park educators work hard for their schools and their students.

"And for their efforts they’ve been rewarded by their school district and board with a gag order, with removal of critical services for their students, and with constant disrespect for their professional expertise," she said. “If it seems that Woodland Park has been in the press an inordinate amount of times for such a small town, you can place the blame squarely on the WPSD and WPBE. They are intent on politicizing all aspects of Woodland Park’s public education system, and will stop at nothing to demoralize their public school educators and negatively impact their students’ learning environments."

Teachers say they have faced "chilling" effects on their free speech

The lawsuit alleges that a ban on teachers from speaking to the media without the superintendent’s approval is unconstitutional. Previously, other Woodland Park educators who have spoken out have been removed from a school or fired.

Initially, when a new school board was elected in 2021, teachers voiced their opinions at school board meetings. But when the district transferred a popular high school educator to an elementary school position — a chilling effect ensued.

The ban on teachers talking to the media without prior approval happened a month later. The district had suddenly announced that sixth-graders, located in the middle school, would head back to elementary schools. Parents hadn’t been consulted and there was no school board vote.

A middle school staff member, Mary Ward, posted a message on the Woodland Park community Facebook page inviting concerned parents to visit the “Concerned Parents of Teller County,” writing, “We need your voices and your solidarity before it’s too late."

Two days later, the district fired Ward for allegedly violating the district policy though it was revised after she was fired and backdated, according to copies of the policies.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Mary Ward, who was fired from her support staff job at Woodland Park Schools, stands outside her child’s elementary school in Woodland Park on April 12, 2023.

The following week, the district informed school staff of a revised media policy. It banned any employee from talking to journalists about the district without the written approval of the superintendent. It made the same prohibition for social media posts about the district. Multiple teachers told CPR they were terrified of speaking on the record and asked to be anonymous without any identifying features in news reports.

The lawsuit states that the district revised the policy, known as KDDA, on Feb. 23, 2023, but didn’t notify district employees until March 6. In an email it stated that the policy was retroactive to Feb. 23. The lawsuit alleges the amendments didn’t follow state open meetings requirements, which declare that the public has a right to attend meetings where policy changes are made. The policy was amended again on March 7.

The lawsuit states that the policy put Owen “in jeopardy if he makes any public comments regarding teacher working conditions and WPEA’s stance on actions the district has taken.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has twice found such restrictions on public school employees’ speech unconstitutional. In a spring interview with CPR, Superintendent Ken Witt was asked about the ban.

“I think the policy speaks for itself,” he said.

The district allegedly forced teachers to join an anti-union group

The lawsuit also alleges that the school districts forced teachers to become members of PACE, the Professional Association of Colorado Educators, which describes itself as a statewide “non-union, professional educators' organization.”

The district informed teachers in May it would pay for their PACE membership, which the lawsuit says will cost the district $39,798. PACE is a state chapter of the Association of American Educators (AAE), a proponent of school vouchers and school choice.

The lawsuit maintains that PACE and AAE are anti-union and encourage teachers to leave unions and cancel union membership. It says many WPEA members who disagreed with PACE’s political beliefs and goals tried to opt out of the liability coverage offered through PACE but the district denied their request.

“While most free speech cases involve restrictions on what can be said, measures compelling speech are at least as threatening to the right to free speech as restrictions on speech,” the lawsuit states. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Woodland Park School Board President David Rusterholtz, center, speaks with Superintendent Ken Witt, left, at a school board meeting April 12, 2023. Board member Sue Patterson is at right.

Prior to this, the district made concerted efforts to weaken the local affiliate of CEA, the Woodland Park Education Association. The district announced it would no longer withhold union dues for members and introduced a policy that said the union’s leaders couldn’t use district computers to communicate with members.

One school board member David Illingworth referred to “open warfare” launched by the union, and alleged the union was “openly attempting to organize a coup in our schools.”

Meanwhile, teacher resignations are continuing. A 10-year veteran, in her July 25 resignation letter, stated that “since the superintendent was hired, the targeting of staff members has been rampant, and he engages in making their working conditions unbearable.” That letter was obtained through an open records request by the Support Woodland Park Schools blog.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the president of the Woodland Park Education Association. The president of WPEA is Nate Owen.