A little over three months since being elected, the new conservative majority on the Douglas County Board of Education has thrown the district into tumult. Classes were canceled Thursday after more than 1,500 people — nearly half the district staff — called in absent and protested recent actions of the school board.
If the board truly prioritized students and education over political division, they could have proved it by retaining Superintendent Corey Wise. Instead, on a 4-3 vote Friday night, the board voted to fire Wise.
After the board took controversial steps to end mask mandates in schools and submarine the district’s educational equity program, the majority sparked furor by issuing an ultimatum earlier last week to Wise to resign or be fired.
The decision to issue the ultimatum came without public discussion or comment. That is a violation of the Colorado Open Meetings Law.
I have prosecuted these cases before and believe the case would have been very strong. Opponents who claim that no policy or action was taken, and consequently no law broken, would likely have found a judge just as incredulous as me.
The case would have been further strengthened by the minority members who vocalized their belief that the majority broke the law.
Nobody issues an ultimatum to the chief executive of an organization if they have not already determined the outcome.
In truth, I am a little shocked that that nobody chose to file a lawsuit against the board. While I heard a lot of people complain about the majority’s violation, nobody held them to account in a courtroom.
That is a lost opportunity to expose the backdoor machinations that led to Wise’s dismissal. It is a lost opportunity to subpoena emails and conduct depositions. It is a lost opportunity to discourage future violations from an emboldened board — paying attorney fees for someone to sue you is a hard lesson to learn.
Instead, the board effectively admitted its error and called a special meeting to discuss the “Superintendent Contract.” That cured any deficiency and nullified the ability for anyone to dig into the discussions that took place before the ultimatum.
It also allowed the majority to hone a prepared message and prearranged outcome. They escaped any legal consequence and got what they wanted in the end.
That is a missed opportunity, too.
The board majority could have done something more meaningful than cover their own tails. Voting to retain Wise would have sent a message that the majority listens to its educators and is open to working with them. Furthermore, it would tell the community that the board prized collaboration and education over political red meat.
It would have been an easy lift for the majority. Wise is a career-long Douglas County educator. He began his career teaching in the same building as my wife, successfully opened Legend High School, became the director of high schools for the district, and stepped up when the former superintendent plucked from a nationwide search resigned in the middle of the pandemic.
Wise accomplished all this while working under the entire political gamut of school boards Douglas County has had over the past two and half decades. There is no reason to think that he would not have faithfully executed the directives of the current board, whether he personally agreed or not.
If a sport analogy would be helpful, it is akin to the Rockies waving goodbye to homegrown talents like Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story and bringing in journeyman replacements. Only instead of screwing baseball fans, the board majority screwed DougCo students.
Keeping Wise could have also helped avert certain political escalation (a Change.org petition to recall the board majority has gathered more than 10,000 signatures since Tuesday) and signaled a willingness to begin bridging the divisions that have riven the school district for more than a decade.
The board chose to go down another path. It is the same path that has made the Douglas County school district the most rancorous in state by a wide margin. It is a path of political powerplays, protests, recalls and nasty elections.
It was not a Wise choice.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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