Douglas County School Board

From left to right: Douglas County school board majority members Kaylee Winegar, Christy Williams, Mike Peterson and Becky Myers

(Screenshot of YouTube meeting livestream on Feb.4) 

A Douglas County parent is suing four members of the county's school board, alleging they violated the state's open meetings law by having private conversations about their school district's superintendent, whom those four members voted to fire hours after the suit was filed.

Filed in Douglas County District Court by Robert Marshall, the suit accuses the board's newly elected majority — President Mike Peterson, Vice President Christy Williams, Treasurer Kaylee Winegar and Secretary Becky Myers — of secretly conspiring to oust Superintendent Corey Wise. The four members talked among themselves on a one-on-one basis about Wise's future; after that, the suit and the other board members allege, Peterson and Williams delivered a resign-or-be-fired ultimatum to the superintendent on Jan. 28. Those one-on-one discussions, the suit alleges, violate the Colorado Open Meetings Law.

A message sent to a Douglas County School District spokeswoman was not immediately returned Monday morning. On Friday, shortly before they voted to terminate Wise, Peterson and Williams both repeatedly denied violating any laws. Peterson said he and Williams met with Wise to discuss the options in his contract, which included him resigning; being unilaterally fired by a board vote; or being fired for cause. Peterson said it was intended to be the beginning of a slow process.

After talking with Wise, Peterson and Williams then called the three, longer-tenured board members who weren't involved in those discussions. Those three — David Ray, Susan Meek and Elizabeth Hanson — then publicly accused Peterson and the rest of the board of telling Wise he had until Feb. 1 — four days after the alleged ultimatum was delivered — to quit or be terminated. They said their fellow board members broke the law by discussing Wise's future among themselves and questioned the timing and motivation.

Eric Coakley, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Marshall, did not immediately return a request for comment sent Monday morning.

Under the Colorado Open Meetings Law, a local body — like an elected school board — must provide notice of and public access to a meeting at which three or more members are conducting business for that body. Peterson and Williams both said their conversations with Myers and Winegar about what to do with Wise were one on one. Their discussion with Wise also involved only Peterson and Williams, meaning that none of those discussions included enough board members to fit the strict definition of the law.

The suit alleges that the conversations still violated the statute because it was a collective decision made outside the bounds of public meetings, a decision that the board majority then moved to ratify in an emergency meeting. The four board officers had "come to an agreement that the Douglas County School District needed to move in a different direction," the suit alleges.

The suit was filed Friday, hours before Wise was fired after a tumultuous, three-hour meeting that saw the two deeply divided board factions level accusations of collusion and misconduct at each other. Peterson accused the three veteran members of conspiring with teachers' unions to help spur a districtwide protest, which on Thursday closed schools for a day.

Ray, who was the board's president until the November election swept Peterson and the other three into power, denied that accusation and in turn charged Peterson and the other officers of harming the district and activating "the Dark Ages."

There's no case law in Colorado about these types of individual meetings, said Jeff Roberts, the executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. He called them "serial" or "daisy-chain" meetings, in which members discuss things on an individual basis and legally outside the requirements for open meetings. But there has been more extensive litigation in other states, he said, where courts have "frowned" on that type of governance.

"If that doesn’t violate the letter of the law, it certainly violates the spirit of the law because they're meeting on the same topic, right?" he said Monday. 

He quoted the beginning of the state's open meetings law — which says in part that the "formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret" — and said he was surprised this type of meeting hadn't been litigated more extensively before.

"If this is OK, then members of public bodies can just do this all the time," Roberts said, "and meet one on one about the same subject to come to some sort of consensus about it and say, 'Well, we didn't violate the law because we met this way.' But it’s still out of the public view. The point of the open meetings law is that public business is conducted in public."

When the suit was filed, Wise was still superintendent and Marshall, the parent who filed it, wanted a judge to issue an injunction to stop the board from firing Wise. After the Thursday protest, the board had called an emergency meeting for the following evening. There would be no public comment, and Wise's future was the only item on the agenda: first for a discussion, and then for a vote.

Marshall alleged that the board couldn't "rubber stamp" a decision made outside of open meeting laws, and he asked the court to stop the members from trying.

"Defendants can demonstrate no legitimate reason to have undertaken the secretive meetings and actions in which they engaged," the suit alleges. "Calling a speedy 'emergency' Special Meeting of the (board of education) to ratify their illegal conduct, rather than waiting for a normal monthly (board of education) meeting to address the employment status of the Superintendent, demonstrates how heavily weighted the balance of equities are in plaintiff’s favor." 

But no injunction was issued Friday, and Wise was fired in a 4-3 vote that fell on an essentially party-line vote.

Asked what the suit could accomplish now, Roberts said it would be interesting to see. The open meetings law doesn't have much teeth, he said, but it could be meaningful for any similar disputes going forward.

"If a judge finds there’s a violation of the open meetings law, that in and of itself could mean something," he said. "It doesn’t mean there will be penalties or fines because there aren’t those in the open meetings law."

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Health reporter

Seth Klamann is the health reporter for the Gazette, focused on COVID-19, public health and substance use. He's a Kansas City native and a University of Missouri alum, with stops in Wyoming, Omaha and Milwaukee before moving to Denver.