Douglas County school board rejects agreement to settle claims that it violated Colorado open meetings law

The elected board overseeing the Douglas County School District rejected a settlement agreement that would have acknowledged several members violated Colorado’s open meetings law when they discussed replacing the former superintendent.

The board voted 4-3 Monday evening to reject the agreement that would have settled claims made by state Rep. Bob Marshall. The Democratic lawmaker filed a lawsuit last year alleging the four members of the board’s conservative majority violated state statute by holding a series of private one-on-one meetings last year to discuss replacing former Superintendent Corey Wise.

The lawsuit now heads toward trial, which may cost the district $500,000.

“It sickens me to think we’re continuing to spend district dollars because we’re not willing to say, ‘Yeah, the way that went down is not how we should have done it,’” Director David Ray said.

The agreement would have meant spending $66,000 to cover Marshall’s legal fees. It also would have required the board release a public statement saying members “acknowledge that pursuant to the legal advice of counsel, they had non-public discussions among three or more members concerning public business in violation of the Colorado Open Meetings Law.”

That statement drew the ire of the board’s conservative majority.

“I don’t believe that I did anything illegal,” Director Christy Williams said. “I maintain I am not guilty.”

The board members who voiced support for the settlement — Ray, Susan Meek and Elizabeth Hanson — expressed dismay that the district would not put the issue behind them.

“This absolutely is taking dollars from kids,” Hanson said.

Director Kaylee Winegar put that money squarely on Marshall.

“This is really on the plaintiff,” she said. “The cost is on him.”

Marshall, in an interview Monday evening, said it’s “ridiculous that they rejected it.”

“Their refusal to admit responsibility is incredible,” he said.

In 2022, the board terminated Wise without cause two years before his contract was set to expire. The board was split in its vote to fire Wise, with all four members of the conservative majority voting to terminate his contract.

If he did not resign, Wise was told, “four members of the (school board) had already collectively decided” to end his contract, according to Marshall’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

The school district has paid Wise more than $830,000 to settle discrimination claims over his firing. Wise had filed claims with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment alleging the four school board members unlawfully fired him without cause in violation of his First Amendment and due process rights.

Under state statute, if at least three school board members meet to discuss district business, then the public must be notified and the meeting made public. This includes if it is a meeting in person, by phone, email or text.

“The evidence indicates that four members of the board collectively committed, outside of public meetings, to the termination of Wise’s employment,” Douglas County District Judge Jeffrey Holmes wrote in a preliminary injunction last year barring directors from holding one-on-one meetings.

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