Douglas County School Board to pay $103,000 as part of ruling that it broke open meetings laws

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Douglas County School bus depot in Castle Rock, October 25, 2021.

The Douglas County school board will pay out more than $100,000 as part of a court ruling that they had violated Colorado’s open meetings law.

Board members approved a resolution Tuesday that details the costs that will be paid to Highlands Ranch resident and state Rep. Bob Marshall, who filed the lawsuit in 2022.

In June, Douglas County District Judge Jeffery Holmes ruled four members of the board broke the state’s Sunshine laws by conducting a series of one-on-one private conversations about firing former Superintendent Corey Wise.

Marshall is asking for more than $103,000 in attorneys fees and court costs, which the district has to pay because a judge ruled they broke the law.  The hearing to finalize that payment is scheduled for Oct. 6.

Critics say by not agreeing to settle the lawsuit in May, the board went against its own policy to be good stewards of the district’s financial resources. The settlement would have required them to acknowledge publicly that they broke the law by talking about public business in private. Instead, the four board members — Mike Peterson, Christy Williams, Becky Myers, and Kaylee Winegar — requested a jury trial. A judge denied the request and ruled that four broke the Colorado open meetings law.

During a public comment period at Tuesday’s board of education meeting, resident Meg Furlow said that the board’s choice to not settle caused extensive damage and reflects fiscal irresponsibility.

“You could have settled the lawsuit a few months ago but because of ego, the costs of this lawsuit are now more than $37,000 higher,” she said.

Screenshot from Douglas County School Board's meeting video call on Sept. 26, 2023.
The Douglas County School board meets on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. From left: Jason Page, Kaylee Winegar, Christy Williams, Mike Peterson, Becky Myers, David Ray and Susan Meek.

Another resident Chad Cox told the board they were found guilty of violating Colorado open meeting laws. “Accept your accountability, be honest and be humble to the district, to the teachers and to the students,” he said.

Members of the board majority later in the meeting said that Marshall refused other settlements because he wanted the judge to reconsider issuing a permanent – not just a temporary - order not to engage in one-on-one meetings.

At an August status hearing on the case, the court ruled that Judge Holmes’ order is “the law of the land.”

“This Court expects your clients to comply with the law as interpreted by Judge Holmes whether they agree with it or not,” said Judge Gary Kramer.

One of the district’s lawyers, Geoffrey Blue, as the spokesperson for the four board members, said he “agreed completely that that is the law of the land and they are bound by it….it applies to Douglas County School Board in…all its future iterations.”

Board members spent more than an hour wordsmithing the resolution. Board member David Ray said the original resolution agreeing to pay Marshall lacked details, including that the four board members had violated the law.

 “We need to document in such a way that protects the system from this happening again,” he said. “And I think part of that is telling the story, telling the truth as hard as it may be to hear, but we need to tell the truth of what happened.”

He said there’s been no public discussion of what the board has learned. After being pressed by Ray, board president Peterson stated what he’d learned from the whole affair.

“I certainly would not have gone about the termination of the superintendent in the way that I did,” he said. “That is a huge lesson learned for me.” He added that he still “absolutely” would have voted to replace Wise as superintendent.

The board eventually accepted amendments to the resolution that include stating that, naming the four board members individually, and letting people know the entire saga lasted 19 months.

Board member Susan Meek wanted the board to commit to the public that it would implement a regular self-evaluation of board policies to ensure compliance with the law and principles of effective governance. She noted that restoring trust is crucial with the district trying for a second attempt to pass two tax measures this November.

“It’s a really steep learning curve to becoming a board member and there’s a steep cost when you mess up,” she said. “If we can tell our community that we are committed to living up to our policies, and we are committed to doing better I think that is helping to restore the trust that has been lost.”

The board voted against her proposed amendment 5 to 2. But a couple of members said they’d agree to discussing her idea at a board retreat.

Marshall, prior to the vote, said he accepted the resolution, which includes that he will not appeal in pursuit of a permanent injunction. He said the court found the four board members violated the law.

 “They admitted through their attorney that they violated the law in open court,” he said. “And that the court order is binding.”  

 Earlier this year, the the school district paid Corey Wise more than $832,000 to settle a discrimination and retaliation complaint against the district after he claimed he was fired for his advocacy for students with disabilities and students of color and his support for an equity policy.

This summer another civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of families of four Black and biracial students alleging district and school administrators failed to take adequate measures to protect the students from severe and pervasive racism and bullying.