In White, Wealthy Douglas County, Colo., a Conservative School Board Majority Fires the Superintendent and Fierce Backlash Ensues
By Jo Napolitano | February 23, 2022
The November election of four conservative members to Colorado’s Douglas County school board led to the firing this month of the district’s beloved superintendent and the swift mobilization of teachers, students and community members against his dismissal.
Corey Wise, who served the district for 26 years in various capacities, was ousted during a special meeting Feb. 4 that barred public comment and came after the four members reportedly conferred on their own to strategize his removal.
A day before, some 1,500 employees staged a sickout in protest of what was to come, forcing the state’s third-largest school district to close its doors.
“People are out of sorts right now,” teachers union President Kevin DiPasquale told The 74. “The way our former superintendent was fired without due process or any type of performance evaluation really has shaken the community and our staff. Employees feel like they could be next.”
Students were equally upset, walking out of school en masse Feb. 7, saying the board valued politics more than education.
“I get that Corey is beloved,” board President Mike Peterson said at the Feb. 4 meeting. “I will stipulate that. But just because a leader is loved and respected doesn’t mean he has the skills, the vision and capabilities to lead this large district.”
The battle in predominantly white, affluent Douglas County mirrors those being fought in numerous districts throughout the country, some with very different demographics. As conservative parents have become organized during the pandemic, they are pushing back against what they see as government overreach, opposing COVID-related protocols and targeting the teaching of race and gender-related topics.
Other more moderate and liberal parent groups are beginning to rise up to counter those views.
Board member Elizabeth Hanson, who broke down in tears defending Wise at the board meeting, said the eyes of the state and nation are on Douglas County.
“This decision was not about performance in any way,” she said. “This is politics in its ugliest and purest and most destructive form. This is an attack on public education and I hope that it is something that will wake up our community, our state and our country. There are very calculated efforts that are happening right now and only the people have the power to stop that.”
Many community members are now considering a possible recall effort. A similar, successful push in San Francisco, in which three board members were removed last week, might serve as a playbook. The strategy seems to be gaining momentum: Ballotpedia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan online political encyclopedia counted 92 recall efforts in 2021, up from 29 a year earlier.
Neither Peterson nor the three other newly elected board members agreed to be interviewed. The slate, backed by deep-pocketed, individual donors and conservative groups, won election running on an anti-mask, anti-critical race theory platform. The phrase refers to a college-level academic framework but has become a catchall for any subject dealing with race or systemic racism in the K-12 setting.
Wise’s critics on the board said he did not have the leadership skills necessary to enact their vision, though they didn’t articulate what that is.
Wise, whose base salary was $247,500, told the board Feb. 4 that he recognized the division in the community and welcomed the chance to address members’ concerns about his performance.
“I love this district,” he said. “I love this county. It’s been my home. I have been working my tail off — as has all the staff.”
Wise’s firing has prompted legal action from community member and attorney Robert Marshall. He sued the school board and the four conservative members individually for discussing the superintendent’s employment outside a formal board session in violation, he said, of the state’s open meeting laws. He wants the termination vote thrown out.
“It’s the behind-closed-doors deal-making that is exactly what this law was put in place to prevent,” Marshall, a self-described conservative who wants to stop the board from acting similarly in the future, told The 74.
Board members David Ray and Susan Meek said Peterson, the board president, told them that the majority members talked about Wise’s job status amongst themselves and offered the superintendent an opportunity to resign before bringing the issue to the full board. The district is obligated to pay Wise’s salary for 12 more months.
Wise’s newly hired attorneys on Feb. 18 requested records from the school district and the preservation of evidence “for future litigation.” The lawyers are interested in board communications around Wise’s termination and topics such as masking, student racial demographics, banning books, the teachers union and the district’s equity policy.
‘Get Out and Leave’
The board majority has been openly anti-union — “We see the union as the bullies, as the power grabbers,” conservative board member Kaylee Winegar told Fox News Feb. 7 — and has pledged to revisit the equity plan, which took years to develop and was only just beginning to be implemented.
It was meant to help address the type of racial tension that led to the exodus of Black and other minority staff in recent years, including the former superintendent. Sixty-five principals and central office employees wrote a letter to the board Jan. 25 demanding the equity plan’s preservation. Parents are also concerned.
“I am a mom of some LGBTQ students and a student with special needs,” Tiffany Baker said. “We have to worry about equity.”
The mood in Douglas County schools continued to deteriorate after the Feb. 4 board meeting. Teachers in at least three district schools found fliers on their cars Feb. 16, admonishing them. “Most Teachers Are Good and We Appreciate Them!” it read. “You are Bad! Get Out and Leave!”
“It is shocking to see such high levels of hate being leveled at teachers and staff,” DiPasquale, the union head, said. “They should not have to worry about their safety at schools or in our community.”
The fliers came the same week teachers were informed by the district that someone asked, under the Colorado Open Records Act, for the names of all those who called in sick during the protest. The request, which alarmed many given the heightened tension in the community, has since been rescinded, Meek said.
A similar petition to release teachers’ names in Colorado’s second-largest school district was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2016. That same district, Jefferson County, managed to recall three conservative board members a year earlier.
Parents have also said the district should be more concerned with student mental health than political infighting: In addition to the pandemic, Douglas County schools suffered a school shooting at one of its charter campuses in 2019 that left one student dead and many more injured. Parents still credit teachers for saving their lives — one mother was visiting campus when shots rang out — and that of their children.
“Bullying, social-emotional struggles, safety — that’s what we should be focusing on,” said parent Amy Valentine.
Kailani Smile, a 16-year-old junior, was among the students who walked off campus Feb. 7. The past two years have been an enormous challenge, she said: Turmoil at the administrative level has only added more stress.
“It’s great to see students my age and younger pushing for things like the equity policy,” she said. “But we shouldn’t have to be dealing with this. We are students and should be focusing on our education instead of worrying about our school board.”
‘Things we could have handled better’
The Douglas County School District serves 64,000 students some 30 miles south of Denver. It’s reliably Republican: Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential race by a comfortable margin in 2020, though not nearly as handily as the prior election.
The county, 90 percent white, is among the richest in the nation: The median home value between 2015 and 2019 was $468,700, more than twice the national average. The same held true for educational attainment and median household income, which was $119,730.
But those comfortable statistics have not stopped the chaos that has unfurled in the past few weeks, crystallizing around the superintendent’s removal. Board member David Ray called the barring of public comment on the matter a travesty.
“To take an action on an all-encompassing topic like ‘future direction of the district’ without allowing the public to formally address this is reckless and negligent,” he said. “It goes against decades of practice where this board has always allowed for public comment prior to taking any formal action.”
Board member Winegar, while criticizing Wise for, among other things, enforcing the district’s mask mandate, seemed to concede the move to get rid of him took place outside normal channels.
“Maybe there are some things we could have handled better, to bring in the whole board,” she said.
The conservative members’ plan was not flawlessly executed: Board member Becky Myers, who won election as part of the slate, at first voted against the superintendent’s dismissal and then hastily changed her answer to a “yes” after being prompted by Peterson, the board president.
The flip-flop incensed board member Hanson, who voted against Wise’s firing.
“If she cannot follow what is happening, it is not your responsibility to bring her up to speed,” Hanson said. “Her vote is ‘no.’”
Amid the board conflicts and the public protests, Peterson seemed to take his mandate to terminate Wise from a different source — the election that swept him and his fellow conservatives into office.
“I think we heard the voters loud and clear in November,” he said.
Lead Image: Teachers and their supporters rally outside Douglas County School District’s central office Feb. 3, a day before Superintendent Corey Wise’s ouster. (Courtesy of Kevin DiPasquale)