Three Douglas County School Board members are alleging the four new board directors gave the superintendent an ultimatum — resign or be fired — without formal board approval and without the full board’s knowledge. The school board president has refuted taking any formal action regarding the superintendent’s employment status.
Directors David Ray, Susan Meek and Elizabeth Hanson made the allegations in a Jan. 31 publicly noticed meeting, also discussing their concerns that the four other directors violated public meeting laws and board policies by agreeing in secret conversations to take formal action against the superintendent.
Ray, Meek and Hanson were the only board directors who participated in the Jan. 31 gathering. Ray said at least 1,300 people viewed the meeting, which was open to the public and held remotely.
Ray said the three are “genuinely concerned that we’ve got a board that’s off the rails in terms of following not only the law” but multiple board policies.
“Our superintendent should never be blindsided with us saying that you’re not performing well,” Ray said.
The three directors alleged the decision to oust Superintendent Corey Wise was made in “backdoor meetings” among directors Mike Peterson, Christy Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar, and that they were notified by Peterson and Williams after the two asked Wise to resign.
Wise has been with the district for 26 years and was named superintendent last year under previous board leadership. Peterson, Williams, Myers and Winegar were elected in November.
In response to interview requests with Peterson, Williams and Wise on Jan. 31, a district spokeswoman said the two directors had not attended the meeting and that Wise did not immediately have comment.
Peterson issued a statement on Feb. 1 denying any wrongdoing. The board president said he is committed to respecting staff privacy “when dealing with sensitive employment situations.”
“Any formal decision regarding our superintendent’s employment status will take place during a public meeting, as required by law,” Peterson said. “There has been no action taken on the superintendent’s contract or employment status.”
Peterson said his conversation with Wise was intended to “provide our superintendent with information needed to participate in an ongoing discussion,” and that Peterson would continue to engage with each board director on the issue.
Peterson called for the district to keep students in classrooms “even in the midst of this personnel matter.” The district should be focused on academic excellence, moving toward a new compensation system and finding common ground as a community, he said.
“I am committed to honoring our superintendent’s legacy and service to our school district,” Peterson said.
In the course of the Jan. 31 meeting, Ray, Meek and Hanson explained how they became aware of the alleged decision to remove Wise. The three had received text messages on Jan. 27 asking to have brief conversations with Peterson and Williams the following day, they said.
Hanson said she spoke to Peterson by phone on Jan. 28 at approximately 7:20 a.m. Peterson informed her that he and Williams met with Wise early that morning and asked for his resignation, she said.
“I was entirely unprepared for that conversation,” Hanson said.
Hanson said she abruptly ended the call with Peterson, which lasted approximately six minutes, and has not spoken with Peterson or Williams since.
Meek said she spoke to Peterson for roughly 15 minutes around noon on Jan. 28. She said Peterson told her he had spoken with directors Myers, Williams and Winegar, who had agreed they wanted the district to go in a different direction.
Meek said Peterson told her he and Williams gave Wise until Tuesday evening to decide if he would resign, and if not, the board majority was prepared to terminate him.
“He indicated that it has nothing to do with a campaign promise,” Meek said.
Meek said Peterson told her he and Williams met with the board’s outside legal counsel Will Trachman on Jan. 27 to discuss talking with Wise about resigning, but that she had not received any memos or communications from Trachman about the conversations.
Hanson said she sees Trachman’s failure to notify the entire board of the conversation as an ethical violation and breach of his engagement letter with the board.
Ray said he spoke to Williams mid-morning on Jan. 28, and that she also told him she met with Peterson and Wise, “and that they had requested that he consider immediately resigning and that there were four directors that were prepared to move forward with replacing him if he chose not to resign.”
“I asked first of all why she felt that she and (Peterson) had the authority to convey this directly to the superintendent, especially since it’s a violation of policy,” Ray said.
Ray said the superintendent can only receive direction through a vote of the board in a formally noticed meeting. Ray said he asked if any concerns about Wise’s performance had been provided to Wise in writing “and the answer was no.”
Ray said the board is legally required to offer an employee the due process of being informed about any performance concerns and an opportunity to respond to or refute those claims. Ray said Williams indicated the four directors intended to let Ray, Meek and Hanson know about giving Wise notice but said the timing had not worked out.
Meek said her biggest concern was that “board members have taken action they are not authorized to take.” Meek said she understands if the majority wants to vote a certain way but “it needs to be done in accordance with law.”
“When decisions are made outside of board meetings, I mean that is prohibited,” she said.
Hanson said going public with the matter was “a difficult decision.”
“In this situation we need to balance the privacy of our superintendent and personnel matters along with fulfilling the oath that we each took as an elected official,” she said.
Remaining silent about the manner in which Wise was given notice would make her complicit with open meeting law violations, she said.
“Colorado open meeting law is more than just limiting the number of board members who are involved in a private conversation. It requires a governmental body to discuss public business or take formal action in meetings that are open to the public,” she said.
Hanson said asking Wise for his resignation was indisputably taking formal action.
The three directors wrapped their meeting by talking about what they hope will happen next. Ray said the board needed to “walk back” the “unauthorized” ultimatum allegedly given to Wise. He also hoped the board would agree to hold a special meeting to further discuss Wise’s employment and management of the district.
Wise should be given the opportunity to decide “am I the right leader for this board” and gain better understanding of the board’s expectations of him, Ray said. He urged more formal discussions among the board about a superintendent performance evaluation rather than termination.
Hanson said she was considering filing an ethics complaint against Trachman and notifying the board that his conversation with Peterson and Williams was a contractual violation.
“No matter how divided our community is I sincerely hope that we can agree as a community that our superintendent, who has given 26 years of his life to our district, should receive a basic level of decency and process,” Hanson said.
This story has been updated with a statement from board President Mike Peterson.