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Douglas County school board members Becky Myers, Mike Peterson and Christy Williams leave a Douglas County courtroom on June 12 with their attorney Geoff Blue. The school board members are facing allegations they violated open meetings law when they fired former Superintendent Corey Wise. (McKenna Harford, Colorado Community Media)

This story first appeared in a Colorado Community Media newspaper. Support CCM’s neighborhood news. The Colorado Sun is an owner of CCM.

A Douglas County judge will decide whether four school board members broke state open meetings law when they held a series of one-on-one conversations before firing former Superintendent Corey Wise last year.

Douglas County District Court Judge Jeffrey Holmes listened to four hours of testimony Monday over whether the conversations between board President Mike Peterson and board members Becky Myers, Kaylee Winegar and Christy Williams violated Colorado Open Meetings Law. He’s expected to make a formal ruling within the week.

Holmes has already ruled against the majority members of the school board once, finding in March 2022 that the conversations held outside public view do violate open meeting laws.

But the board members did not want to admit fault, choosing to appeal Holmes’ ruling and rejecting a settlement. After school district attorneys missed the filing deadline for a jury trial, Holmes will again rule on the case filed by State Rep. Robert Marshall, a Democrat from Highlands Ranch.

Marshall is asking Holmes to find the Douglas County School Board broke the law, prohibit future serial conversations on public business and declare the decision to terminate Wise was invalid. 

Wise was fired without cause in a 4-3 vote on Feb. 4, 2022. 

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Myers, Peterson, Winegar and Williams said they didn’t support the direction Wise was taking the district, including enforcing a mask mandate and implementing the district’s equity policy. 

Peterson and Williams met with Wise on Jan. 28, 2022, telling him they had a four-vote majority and asking him to resign.

On Monday, Geoff Blue, an attorney for Peterson, Myers, Williams and Winegar, argued that board members are allowed to have one-on-one conversations and maintained that there was no violation of the law because the conversations didn’t include debate or formal action regarding Wise’s position.

“The legislature chose to say they are only public meetings if three or more members meet,” Blue said. “At the end of the day, so long as the votes are taken in public, with debate and with discussion, then there’s no harm to transparency.”

Steve Zansberg, Marshall’s attorney, argued that Colorado open meetings law prohibits elected officials from any conversations about public business outside of public meetings, regardless of whether formal action is taken.

“All of those conversations of public business were meetings under the open meetings law, which defines a meeting as any kind of gathering convened to discuss public business,” Zansberg said. “It doesn’t matter if a decision was made.”

The parties also disagreed whether Peterson and Williams’ meeting with Wise constituted an ultimatum for Wise to resign or be fired. 

In a recording of the meeting, submitted as evidence in the trial, Peterson told Wise if he didn’t want to resign, the board would move forward with termination.

“If you call us Monday and say ‘No, Mike, I don’t think I’d like to resign, I’d like to move forward with a termination,’ then we can get to a special meeting and appoint a hearing officer,” Peterson said. 

In testimony on Monday, Peterson said he, Williams and Wise discussed Wise’s options regarding ending his contract, but an ultimatum was never issued. 

“We did not say ‘Superintendent you need to resign or else,’ we discussed the resignation as one of the many options he had available,” Peterson said.

In addition to arguments that the board didn’t violate open meetings law, Blue said if the judge finds serial meetings are illegal, he should decide that the board fixed any violation of the law by holding the Feb. 4, 2022, meeting where they discussed and voted on Wise’s termination publicly.

“The Feb. 4 meeting was a three-hour long, properly convened meeting, in which the directors debated the issue and voted,” Blue said. “The only conclusion this court can reach is that was a cure.”

Zansberg said the subsequent meeting does not fix violations of open meetings law because the Feb. 4 meeting happened after Marshall sued the board.

“(Blue) has cited no case in Colorado where a public body cured an improperly made decision after a lawsuit challenging that decision was filed,” Zansberg said. 

As of April 6, the school district had spent around $152,000 on legal fees in this case.