DCSD Superintendent Corey Wise listens to public comment at a Douglas County school board meeting. (Jessica Gibbs, CCM)

This story first appeared in a Colorado Community Media newspaper. Support CCM’s neighborhood news.

Douglas County School District will pay former superintendent Corey Wise more than $800,000 to settle claims that his firing amounted to discrimination.

Wise sued the school district and four school board members — Becky Myers, Mike Peterson, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar — in April 2022 after he was fired without cause, claiming he was dismissed for advocating for marginalized students, including favoring a mask policy in schools and his efforts to implement the district’s equity policy.

Under the settlement, the school district will pay Wise $270,733 for the remainder of his superintendent contract, as well as $562,000 to resolve the lawsuit. According to a news release from Wise’s attorneys, the money will come from the district’s insurance policies, so no money will be diverted from students. 

Wise told Colorado Community Media the settlement is vindicating for him, adding that he hopes it will deter politicization and discrimination in Douglas County moving forward. 

“I feel validated that this sends a statement that politics should not enter education and, at the same time, discriminatory acts have consequences,” Wise said.

The administration office for the school district said on Monday it did not have any comment on the settlement.

The settlement is not an admission of liability for the district or board members.  

Board President Peterson said in a statement that he voted to fire Wise because of a lack of competency and reiterated that the settlement is not an admission of liability.

“As one director, I voted to terminate the former superintendent due to a lack of competency — period,” he said. “I will not allow this matter to distract me from focusing on our students and securing more competitive pay for our teachers and staff.”

Board Member Williams also provided a statement, saying she voted to fire Wise because she felt he was “unable to meet the requirements of an efficient and effective leader.”

“I’m thankful we can finally move forward and put the focus back on our students and staff,” Williams said.

Myers, Peterson, Williams and Winegar campaigned and were elected on platforms that included removing mask mandates in schools and making changes to the district’s equity policy. 

Wise’s complaint alleged those actions, as well as numerous statements from the four board members, were evidence they were motivated by discriminatory views against immunocompromised people, people of color and LGBTQ+ people. 

“I think their actions were retaliatory and discriminatory, not only against me, but all of the students that we were trying to protect,” Wise said, adding that they showed “poor leadership.” 

The goal with the complaint is to stand up against discrimination and push back against partisanship and misinformation, Wise said. 

Iris Halpern, Wise’s attorney, agreed, saying it’s important for there to be consequences to putting politics before students, which is a fight not unique to Douglas County.

“Hopefully this sends the message to communities that we have to be careful about how our education systems are politicized, not to vilify minority groups that need the most support and that there is an intentional playbook that is talking place right now,” Halpern said. “There’s a larger attempt to exploit the situation and create division and hate for political power. It’s not happening by accident.”

Wise said he is thankful for the support he’s received from community members and wants the best for the district. He urged the district to continue to focus on educational equity and find ways to come together. 

“Each of our students’ experiences going through school is the social piece of learning, so (addressing equity) is just as imperative as teaching academics,” he said. “If we don’t provide a safe environment for every student to learn, how are they going to reach their potential?”

Students from ThunderRidge High School walk out of school on Feb. 7, 2022, dressed in black, to protest the sudden firing of the superintendent, Corey Wise, and the planned changes in the district’s equity policy. (John Leyba, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Wise’s firing was a watershed for the school district, with more than 1,000 teachers calling out sick and students walking out of class to protest the termination the day before it happened.

Wise’s firing came under extra scrutiny when school board members Elizabeth Hanson, Susan Meek and David Ray alleged the decision had been made outside of public meetings, which would violate Colorado’s Open Meetings Law. 

Douglas County resident Bob Marshall, who is now also a state house representative, sued the district over the alleged open meetings law violation and that suit is still in court. 

In a preliminary order issued in March, Douglas County District Court Judge Jeffrey Holmes agreed that the board members had violated the Open Meetings Law and ordered the members to conduct all public business in public meetings and follow the law.

School board members Myers, Peterson, Williams and Winegar maintain they did not violate any laws.

Wise currently works for the Cherry Creek School District.