Fired Superintendent Files Discrimination Complaint, New Chief Steps In
Former schools chief claims discrimination, retaliation. Critics call his replacement, who is pledging to unite the district, underqualified
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Three months after the Douglas County, Colorado, school board fired its popular superintendent in a move that sparked teacher and student protests, the former top administrator has filed a complaint against the district — and the board has installed a successor some call unqualified.
Corey Wise, in his state and federal discrimination and retaliation claim, said his support for the district’s equity policy, minority and LGBTQ+ students and COVID mask mandates made him a target of four newly elected conservative board members who pushed him out in February.
His replacement, Erin Kane, former head of a 3,000-student local charter school network, was hired in March in a 4:3 vote, with the backing of the same four members who ousted Wise.
It was not her first time in the position: Kane served as Douglas County’s interim superintendent between 2016 and 2018. She was not hired for the post because she did not meet qualifications: She lacked a master’s degree at the time and was not among the finalists, district officials told The 74.
Kane, who has lived in the county for more than two decades and raised her three children there, spent her first weeks in office meeting with school and community leaders, trying to build trust in a district that has been deeply divided over mask mandates and moves toward equity and inclusion — so-called “culture war” issues that are roiling school systems around the country.
“I recognize that our community is still facing conflict and division,” she said in a statement on the district’s website. “However, as I listen carefully to what everyone is saying, I truly believe that we are much closer together than we think.”
The superintendent has turned her attention to securing funding for teacher raises — similar efforts have been underway for years — and bonds for new construction and building maintenance. Her wealthy, mostly white district, the third-largest in the state, serves some 64,000 students.
Critics lament the speed at which Kane was chosen. Wise, in his complaint, alleges she was a predetermined pick, that she accidentally sent him a text message regarding the position before he was terminated and just minutes after two new board members urged him to resign.
The board’s conservative slate has “expressed no contrition or sorrow for ruining Mr. Wise’s career, dragging his reputation through the mud, or sacrificing his well being to the altar of their biased agendas,” his complaint states.
Wise, whose base salary was $247,500, had worked for Douglas County schools in various capacities for 26 years. The district was obligated to pay him for 12 more months and gave him a lump sum in February. Kane was hired at $250,000 with her contract ending June 30, 2026.
“In my first four weeks, I have met one-on-one with nearly 100 district and school leaders, visited 30 schools, spoken to hundreds of teachers and staff, and engaged with board committees and community groups,” she wrote in an email to The 74. “I am very committed to community outreach around district funding and our challenges, including teacher pay and facilities. Taking care of the amazing teachers and staff who care for our children will always be a priority for me. I am confident that together, in partnership with our parents and community, we can maximize the opportunities we provide for our students’ futures.”
None of the four board members who ousted Wise have returned numerous requests for interviews. Their decision led to a massive student walk-out and the day before their vote, 1,500 district employees staged a sickout. That prompted an attorney and father living in the district to ask that the names of all participating teachers be made public. The request was rescinded, but not before a local news agency asked the district to identify the person who made the query. That information was released last week: Michael P. Kane, a partner with Dan Caplis Law and who is not related to the new superintendent, was behind the request. Caplis is a prominent conservative radio host.
Wise and his supporters say the board met unlawfully and in secret to plot his ouster. Community member and attorney Robert Marshall sued the school board and the four conservative members individually, saying they discussed Wise’s employment outside a formal board session in violation of the state’s open meeting laws.
The suit is making its way through district court: Judge Jeffrey K. Holmes, who granted a preliminary injunction March 9 to prevent the four board members from violating open meetings laws, said evidence indicates they “collectively committed, outside of public meetings, to the termination of Wise’s employment.”
The district’s motion for the lawsuit to be dismissed was denied.
Marshall said the board has continued to operate unethically.
“The hiring of the new superintendent was a farce,” he said. “Several community members begged the new board members to simply tell everyone they wanted Erin Kane and hire her because that was what they were going to do anyway. Instead, they went through a charade of a search and said they would consider public comment.”
Marshall said he and many other community members wanted another candidate, finalist Danny Winsor, who had worked in the district for years, from coach to teacher to administrator.
Marshall said the board continues to keep the community on edge by calling numerous last-minute special sessions: They’ve called eight so far in 2022, far more than average, according to board member David Ray. The majority have focused on the superintendent search process and job description. Others have been devoted to Marshall’s lawsuit.
Ray, who opposed Wise’s firing and Kane’s hiring, laments the meetings, which have mostly been called by board President Mike Peterson.
“It circumvents our public being able to participate,” Ray said. “When the public doesn’t get that notice in advance, they are at a disadvantage. Special meetings are not best practice and should only be used for things of an urgent nature. We challenged Peterson on a number of occasions about why they could not be pushed into regular board meeting agendas … but he was not willing to push out the timeline.”
Some critics of the board majority say they are considering a recall, but none have started the process in earnest. Still, others say the board and the district are on a solid path.
“I am happy with the direction they are going,” said parent Christa Gilstrap. “Kane is a fabulous choice. She can bring unity and calm things down in the district.”
Gilstrap, a recruiter by profession, believes Kane is qualified even though she does not have a master’s degree in education as was initially required by the district. Instead, she has a master’s in public administration.
Regardless of her academic credentials, Gilstrap said, Kane is a proven leader, having run her K-8 charter school, American Academy, for seven years.
“We need someone who has those skills,” Gilstrap said. “Her reputation from her charter is untarnished: She had countless employees come and speak in her favor.”
But long-time resident Julie Gooden, who has two children in the district, believes it is in chaos because of the newly elected board members.
“I feel like Mike Peterson is campaigning and I’d like him to stop,” Gooden said. “He says things that are alarming. He vilifies teachers and our staff.”
The animosity has spread to the greater community. Teachers union President Kevin DiPasquale said morale remains low weeks after teachers on three campuses found fliers on their cars admonishing them: “Most Teachers Are Good and We Appreciate Them!” it read. “You are Bad! Get Out and Leave!”
DiPasquale said teachers worry the board is not focused on education but on addressing numerous lawsuits. And, he said, they remain uncertain about wage increases: Douglas County teachers and staff are the lowest paid among Colorado’s other large, metro area districts, such as Jefferson County and Littleton, the union head said.
“Erin is making an attempt to be visible,” DiPasquale said of the new superintendent. “But there hasn’t been any work by the board or the school superintendent toward supporting public education.”
Right now, he said, there are more than 600 open positions in his school district: The next closest district has 300, and it’s far bigger.
Ray, who has served on the board for nearly seven years, said he’s had a positive working relationship with Kane in the past, but wishes she had stronger credentials.
Critics charge, too, that Kane is aligned with right-wing groups and that she supports arming teachers, a point she clarified in an email to The 74. She said she does not support arming staff within her district, except for school resource officers or official security personnel.
“We have great relationships with our law enforcement partners and they are only a few minutes away,” she said, but, “I also do not support taking that right away from schools or districts in different circumstances that may be far away from law enforcement and without SROs. Again, this is not the case in Douglas County.”
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