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Conservative-led school board fires superintendent after allegations of private ultimatum, teacher protest

Douglas County Superintendent Corey Wise is seen Feb. 4. (Douglas County School District)

A school board outside Denver voted to fire the district’s superintendent Friday night in a controversial move that came amid accusations that the newly elected conservative majority had violated state open-meeting laws.

The Douglas County, Colo., school board voted 4 to 3 in a special meeting Friday night to fire Corey Wise without cause, dismissing the superintendent with two years left in his contract. Wise, voted in by the board last April, supported policies on in-school masking and equity that were overturned in the months since by four conservatives who campaigned against critical race theory and other diversity initiatives and were elected to the board.

“It’s more about finding someone who better aligns,” Kaylee Winegar, a member of the school board, said during the meeting. “It’s just what we want with this district is different.”

The vote followed allegations from the board’s liberal minority that the conservative members made an ultimatum in secret to Wise for him to resign or be fired through a vote — actions that would violate Colorado’s open-meeting laws. The allegations sparked outrage in the community and resulted in one of the Denver area’s largest school systems closing Thursday as 1,000 teachers, district staffers and parents protested the board in support of Wise. It also underscored mounting tensions in schools around the nation over divisive issues that have come into sharp relief amid the nation’s reckoning on race relations and pandemic policies.

The uproar from teachers and others in Douglas County did not change the opinions of the four conservative school board members Friday.

As she cast her vote against Wise’s firing, Elizabeth Hanson, one of the board’s three liberal members, said that the actions of her conservative colleagues amounted to “an attack on public education.” Board member Susan Meek said she was in “shock and dismay” when she, Hanson and David Ray were alerted last week to the alleged collusion from the conservative majority to oust Wise without cause.

“To have four members of a board collude together to make a decision of that magnitude and not include the entire board is reprehensible,” Meek said Saturday.

Hanson added, “This was politics in its ugliest and most destructive form.”

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Wise, 48, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. After being voted out, he told KDVR, “I love Douglas County School District, the kids, our staff. It was an honor.”

Meek accused the conservative board members of “illegal” conduct by allegedly meeting in secret to push out the superintendent — a claim at least one of the conservative members denies. Mike Peterson, the school board president, said in a statement that he rejected reports that “I or any of the majority board members [violated] any laws related to the discussion of any personnel matter.” He did not provide further details.

Under Colorado’s open-meeting laws, school board members do not have the authority to act on their own without informing the entire board.

Peterson did reference the conservative members’ victories in last November’s election, stating that their wins “clearly showed that parents were dissatisfied with the current direction of the school district and the negative impact it has had on our children’s education.”

“I recognize this is an emotional time for our community and want you to know I am committed to restoring peace and unity to our school district with a continued focus on educating our children,” Peterson said.

The other three conservative school board members — Winegar, Becky Myers and Christy Williams — did not respond to requests for comment.

The move in Douglas County comes months after conservative candidates nationwide scored significant victories in school board elections. While issues regarding gender and the pandemic were key topics in those races, much of the attention from conservatives was directed toward critical race theory, an academic framework for examining the way laws and policies perpetuate systemic racism. Though critical race theory is not taught in any K-12 systems, the intellectual movement became a contentious culture war in which conservatives nationwide pushed back against racial equity initiatives by schools, including teaching about racism in American history. Initiatives focused on racial equity were turbocharged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

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Douglas County is seen as a stronghold for conservatives, having supported Donald Trump in the presidential elections. The school board race in the county drew so much attention that the conservatives were featured on Fox News in the run-up to the election. All four members of the “Kids First” group won, tipping the school board majority to the right.

The school board’s new majority made its presence known early on when the conservatives voted in December — amid surging coronavirus cases due to the omicron variant — to immediately drop the district’s mask mandate that was designed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in its schools. After Peterson appeared in a covid-related video with county leaders and released a joint statement without consulting other board members, Ray filed complaints against the board president last month, according to Colorado Public Radio.

Then, on Jan. 25, the conservative majority voted to change an equity policy adopted last year that called for hiring a more diverse workforce and evaluating the curriculum. Conservative members said there were “legitimate questions” raised by parents and district employees regarding the “feelings of shame and guilt” generated by the initiative.

Meek said she and her fellow liberal board members learned on Jan. 28 that Peterson and Williams, and potentially other conservative members, allegedly met privately with Wise, a 25-year district employee. They allegedly gave the superintendent an ultimatum to resign by Tuesday at midnight or be fired through a school board vote.

“When we found out what happened, we had to openly share what we heard,” Meek said.

At a Zoom meeting on Monday that was open to the public, Hanson, Meek and Ray shared the allegations to roughly 1,300 people on the call. The liberal minority claimed their school board colleagues had violated Colorado’s open-meeting laws. In addition to informing all members, state law requires that all meetings discussing public business with three or more school board officials present be open to the public, according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

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The conservative board members on the call acknowledged holding the meeting, though it was unclear how many were in attendance and they did not specify what was discussed.

“We’re not just whining,” Ray said at the Zoom meeting. “We’re genuinely concerned we’ve got a board that’s off the rails in terms of following not only the law, but also the policies that keep us governing effectively.”

The backlash sparked a massive protest that forced the district to cancel classes on Thursday because so many teachers called out to attend the demonstration.

At Friday’s meeting, Williams was among the conservative members who argued that Wise had not done “a good job representing the board to staff,” adding that she didn’t “feel that’s the kind of superintendent that we need.” Ray and the minority pushed back, citing a lack of specifics from the conservatives, saying there was not “one single [piece of] evidence that shows undermining behavior” involving Wise’s performance.

While the meeting did not allow for public comment, Wise made his plea to the school board and the residents in attendance.

“Let us lead, let me lead, let’s see what can happen, let’s take the handcuffs off and work together and let’s see what can happen,” Wise said to board members just before the vote. He urged the seven-person board to work together — and to work with him: “I believe in our people and I believe in all of you. We can do this. Give us a chance. Give me a chance, a real chance.”

Andy Abner and Danelle Hiatt, the district’s deputy superintendents, will share the role of acting superintendent, Peterson said at the meeting.

Among those at the meeting was Kelly Mayr, a 54-year-old mother of nine who has lived in the district since 1997. Mayr still has five children attending Douglas County public schools, including some with special education needs. She’s deeply concerned about the direction the district is going with the ouster of Wise, who, she said, prioritized special education.

“My children are going to be forever harmed by this board,” Mayr said. “I am horrified and heartbroken.”

Meek praised Wise as someone who was “able to get our system to move in the direction that the board wanted, while also following the law in the most complicated time in education history.” She was hopeful the seven-person board could “find a path forward” and come together to serve the best interests of students.

Hanson, however, was not as confident about those prospects following what she described as “a really horrible week.”

“I don’t know how we repair what happened last night,” she said. “They ignored the critical voices in our community. They ignored everyone.”

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