Douglas County Schools Pays $832K to Fired Chief Who Claimed Retaliation

After 2022 ouster by conservative board, Corey Wise received $270,733 for his remaining contract and $562K to resolve unlawful termination claims

Douglas County School District/YouTube

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Correction appended, May 4

A former Colorado schools chief, whose 2022 ouster by his board’s new conservative majority made national headlines, quietly settled his unlawful termination and retaliation claims against the Douglas County district last month for nearly $833,000.

The district agreed to pay Corey Wise $270,733 for the remainder of his contract and $562,000 to resolve his unlawful termination claims. While Wise’s attorneys initially described the source of the money differently, school board trustee David Ray said Thursday the district paid Wise for the remainder of his contract when he was terminated in February 2022 and is now responsible for covering its $150,000 deductible from the $562,000 the former superintendent will receive from the district’s insurance company.

“Had these funds not been expended, the dollars could have been reallocated to another area such as student learning,” Ray said. “This marks a dark day in our district when disrespect, political agendas and refusal to take ownership for mistakes negatively impact much needed financial resources for our students.”

A popular superintendent who served the school system for 26 years, Wise was fired  at a special meeting last February that barred public comment and came after the school board’s conservative majority reportedly met to plan his removal — a move that prompted yet another court battle over alleged violations to the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Wise had strong support among students and educators alike: Just a day earlier, some 1,500 employees staged a sickout to protest his impending removal, forcing the state’s third-largest school district to close. 

Wise said board members Becky Myers, Michael Peterson, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar terminated him without cause and targeted him for advocating for students with disabilities and minority youth. 

The battle in predominantly white, affluent Douglas County mirrored those being fought in numerous districts throughout the country in the pandemic’s wake. Conservative parents, pushing back against what they saw as government overreach, organized politically and ran school board candidates who opposed COVID-related protocols and teachings around race and gender. At the same time, other more moderate and liberal parent groups began to rise up to counter those views.

In Douglas County, the board members’ actions violated Wise’s First Amendment and due process rights in addition to state and federal laws, according to a statement released last month by his attorneys. Peterson, the school board president, did not return requests for comment. 

Amy Valentine, a district parent and a part-time substitute teacher at a local charter school, said she wasn’t surprised by the hefty payout. 

“School boards must be held accountable for their actions, and I’m glad that was the case in Douglas County,” she said. 

Wise’s attorneys said their client’s story might serve as a lesson to other school districts, many of which have seen right-wing groups gain control over local boards of education as a means to counter cultural movements with which they disagree, fighting against equity and inclusion efforts and social-emotional learning, among other issues. 

“Hopefully, his story sheds light on the dangers of politicizing student education and spreading misinformation about students, personnel, curriculum, and school policies,” Wise’s attorneys wrote. They added the four board members “put their success over the success of students,” and have “destroyed trust between community members, engendered hate within our county, and degraded the quality of education for our students.”

Wise’s case isn’t the district’s only legal headache. Bob Marshall, an active community member with no children in the school system, filed a lawsuit against the school board as a whole and the four majority members with the Colorado District Court on Feb. 4, 2022, trying to get a temporary restraining order to keep them from meeting and ousting Wise.

Marshall, an attorney, was hoping “everyone could have gone to their corner, settled down and done it the right way.” He said he had no allegiance to Wise and no opinion about his leadership, but filed the lawsuit because he believed the board violated the law by meeting in secret. Marshall, a longtime Republican who now describes himself as a conservative Democrat, was elected to the state Assembly in November 2022. 

Unless it is settled before that, Marshall said his case could go to trial in June. 

Whether Wise’s support for a controversial district equity policy played a role in his termination was also scrutinized by his lawyers. Before the school board was set to discuss the policy last week, a biracial student told the trustees he and his siblings faced appalling harassment at school. One student posted that Black people should be removed from the planet and called for bringing back the Holocaust. The slurs leveled in person and over social media were so frequent and hate-filled that his mother said she could not envision sending him back to campus. 

The district is also facing other challenges: Voters rejected a bond request for construction improvements and another measure to boost teacher pay, which remains among the lowest in the state — and nation. 

The three seats held by the board members who are not part of the conservative majority are all up for election for this year.

“We have three outstanding minority board members now,” Marshall noted. “Anything other than getting three equivalent board members will be a loss.”

Correction: The source of the funds paid to ousted Douglas County Superintendent Corey Wise was incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this story based on information provided by his attorneys.

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