A Douglas County Board of Education director abruptly resigned Tuesday night during a public meeting, citing concerns about the district’s legal fees, politicization of the board and implementation of the district’s equity policy.
Director Elizabeth Hanson’s mid-meeting departure Tuesday is the latest turmoil to hit the district, as it continues fighting a legal battle that sprang up during the controversial firing of former superintendent Corey Wise last year.
Before leaving the boardroom, Hanson said her resignation was effective immediately.
Earlier this month, the board rejected a settlement offer in a lawsuit brought by state Rep. Bob Marshall, D-Highlands Ranch, which alleged the board majority violated Colorado’s open meeting laws when planning Wise’s ouster by using a series of one-on-one and private meetings.
School Board President Mike Peterson and members Becky Myers, Christy Williams, and Kaylee Winegar were named individually.
Peterson did not return a phone call and email seeking comment.
Had the board accepted Marshall’s settlement, they would have had to acknowledge that these members violated Colorado’s Open Meetings Laws and paid the lawmaker’s legal fees, according to the rejected agreement.
Marshall’s settlement offer stoked consternation on a divided school board, as minority members pushed to accept the offer while the majority moved to reject it.
In explaining the sudden departure, Hanson said Tuesday: “I also cannot look at our community, our taxpayers, in the eyes and assure them that every dollar in our budget is being spent wisely.
“You have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars that belong to classrooms to defend yourselves because you broke the law when you fired Corey Wise.”
Hanson did not return a phone call and text Wednesday seeking comment.
Wise — a longtime district employee — was fired without cause by the school board in February last year. His attorney, Iris Halpern, announced last month that Wise had settled the complaint he brought against the district for $832,733.61.
Wise was earning $247,500 annually.
The settlement money paid to Wise was through the Douglas County School Board’s insurance policy. No funds were diverted from students, Halpern has said.
The settlement stemmed from a civil rights complaint that claimed he was unlawfully terminated for supporting students and staff of color, the LGBTQ+ community and students with disabilities.
In an ironic twist, the school board met Tuesday to discuss proposed revisions to the district’s equity policy, which was passed in 2021 and was the subject of much debate in the wake of the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Marshall’s separate lawsuit alleging open meeting violations is ongoing.
Marshall’s lawsuit alleges the board majority of Peterson, Williams, Myers and Winegar violated open meeting laws by discussing Wise’s removal through a chain of private discussions — outside of public view — or “daisy chain” meetings designed to skirt public meeting laws.
A judge granted a temporary restraining order in the case, barring future daisy chain and open meeting law violations.
On May 8, the board held tense discussions about a settlement offer from Marshall before ultimately rejecting it in a 4-3 vote.
Directors Hanson, Susan Meek and David Ray dissented.
The settlement would have required the district to pay $66,000 in Marshall’s attorney fees and abide by an injunction that prohibited open meeting law violations.
The sticking point became a third stipulation, which would have required the board admit to violating Colorado's open meeting laws in the leadup to Wise’s firing.
While the board minority pushed to accept the offer, the board majority indicated they would have been willing to agree to its terms if the settlement did not require they admit any wrongdoing.
“I have maintained for over a year now that I do not believe that I did anything illegal,” Director Williams said on May 8. “I maintain that I am not guilty.”
Minority directors, including Hanson, said the board clearly violated the law and that continuing to fight the lawsuit meant a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars. But the board’s majority members, including Director Kaylee Winegar, have said it is Marshall wasting district resources and that he should drop the lawsuit.
Marshall pushed back on that assertion, saying he had tried to save the district money by avoiding a jury trial, but that he was unwilling to settle without “an acknowledgement that the laws were broken.”
The lawsuit is scheduled for a three-day jury trial on June 12.
During the May 8 discussions, Hanson said going to trial will bring the district’s legal expenses to roughly $500,000.
Through March 7, the district had spent roughly $98,000 on legal assistance, according to the Douglas County News-Press.
Wednesday, The Denver Gazette requested a tally of legal expenses under the Colorado Open Records Act.
Marshall told The Denver Gazette that his legal team has submitted motions requesting the judge, rather than a jury, rule on the lawsuit. As of Tuesday, the judge had not yet responded to those motions.
“The fact that they have been under this injunction for a year and functioned better as a board, yet they want to fight this” while incurring more legal fees, Marshall said, “makes no sense.”
This story has been updated to reflect DCSD's equity policy was first passed in 2021.