Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:41 p.m.
Roughly 20 years ago, Kaci Nice was an 18-year-old, born-and-raised Parker resident attending Ponderosa High School. The high school senior was playing soccer and preparing to graduate.
Her coach was Corey Wise. He taught her social studies class too.
She remembers him as “an amazing teacher” who was popular among students. She called him “the most ethical, caring, loving, strong family man that I have ever met.”
Now in the wake of allegations a conservative school board majority improperly asked Wise to resign or face termination as the district’s superintendent, Nice —a parent of two current Douglas County School District students — is taking action.
“I immediately wanted to stand up to that wrong that had been done,” she said.
She planned to join a rally this afternoon and also launched a Change.org petition urging recalls of the four directors who reportedly plotted Wise’s ouster. The online petition garnered 7,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. An estimated 1,500 teachers called out sick today, forcing the district to cancel classes.
Hundreds of district staff and community members gathered outside district headquarters in Castle Rock protesting plans to remove Wise and steps the board majority had taken Jan. 25 to dismantle the district’s equity policy.
Students, parents and teachers began arriving in front of district offices on Wilcox Street in Castle Rock around 12:30 p.m. The crowd steadily increased throughout the afternoon.
As demonstrators chanted “transparency matters” cars passing by mostly honked in support. Some disagreed and yelled profanities. One man said, “Your equity is stealing my daughter’s future. Get back to work.”
Nadene Klein, a teacher for the district, said she feels the current school board needs to be held accountable and abide by state laws in making decisions.
“They need to be transparent and Corey Wise deserves his due process,” Klein said. “I respectfully disagree with the board’s current point of view but I respect that they were elected. I will respect them in their decision making as long as they follow the law. I think a day out of school is worth saving three years of hardship.”
Demonstrators had several messages as they participated in the event. Some were there to throw support behind Wise while others came out to fight making changes to the district’s equity policy.
On Jan. 25, the board passed a resolution through a 4-3 vote that directs the superintendent to return in September with recommended amendments to the district’s equity policy.
Caroline Newkirk, a 3-year district teacher, said the equity policy being dismantled is a problem.
“It is an issue for me and a lot of other teachers,” she said. “A lot of time and energy was put into creating it and it should be honored so we can stand for all students.”
Dwayne and Dawn Thomason weathered the cold temperatures and snow during the Feb. 3 demonstration to show support for Wise.
Dawn, a secretary for the district, said Wise, “is a terrific person, fair and kind. He is a good person for the district and we are here supporting him.”
Several demonstrators said they disagree with board members allegedly holding meetings and making decisions without the entire board present.
Parent Sarah FitzSimons, a mother of four in Parker, said she came out to show support for transparency and her sister-in-law who has taught in the district for 21 years.
“I am unhappy with this board’s lack of transparency and not giving (Wise) due process,” she said. “Then they are blocking equity steps that are important in helping teachers get training to properly help and teach students who are transgender.”
A large group of students from Rock Canyon High School attended the lively demonstration. Several students, ranging between freshmen and seniors, said they participated in support of teachers.
Sophomore Katie Dupper said she is standing up for equity and transparency in the district, while noting that she is excited to see that the demonstration was peaceful, fun and got the message across.
“We just want to make sure we are headed in the right direction for years to come,” she said. “Our teachers need our support.”
Sophomore Hailey Vetter said, “I am here in complete support of the teachers and give them the love I receive from them daily.”
Tensions around educational equity and governance of the district have brewed for weeks.
The most recent tipping point came Jan. 31, when the school board minority of David Ray, Susan Meek and Elizabeth Hanson held a public meeting alleging the board majority had given Wise the ultimatum to leave or be fired without the full board’s knowledge and without formal board approval.
They publicly accused directors Mike Peterson, Becky Myers, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar of violating board policy and breaking open meetings law.
Peterson issued a statement Feb. 1 saying the board had not taken any formal action regarding Wise’s employment status and had urged the district to keep students in school. He vowed to respect Wise’s privacy and his legacy.
Wise has been with DCSD for 26 years, spending his entire career with the district.
Meek told Colorado Community Media she spoke with Wise on Jan. 28 after learning about the ultimatum, and she said he corroborated accounts he was asked to resign or face termination.
Meek said she could not speak for Wise when asked if he was considering the ultimatum or if he found it legally legitimate.
A district spokeswoman said she had no updates when asked about the evening of Feb. 1 — the deadline Wise was reportedly given for deciding if he would resign — and about whether he had responded to requests he step down.
Meek said the alleged open meeting law violations were not the first complaints about majority board directors’ actions.
More than once, she questioned Peterson during board meetings about why he was referring to the board majority as a “we” and saying the four all felt the same about certain issues, despite Meek saying she had not been privy to whatever discussions he was referring to.
“That insinuates that backdoor conversations are happening — deciding policy as opposed to talking about it during board meetings,” she said.
A joint video statement by Peterson, Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon and Douglas County Board of Health President Doug Benevento also drew scrutiny from directors because Peterson was not authorized through director approval to speak on behalf of the school board.
Following the Jan. 31 meeting, Meek said she hoped the board would line up a special meeting with the full board, rescheduling the board’s retreat — which had been cancelled — to discuss the overall direction of the district and discuss concerns about the board’s relationships with Will Trachman.
Trachman is the board’s outside legal counsel and had reportedly consulted Peterson and Williams about removing Wise without briefing the full board about the conversations.
Meek said she was most concerned by any backdoor meetings that might have occured, saying that conduct is something that “rips apart a community and destroys trust.” The director said she is “absolutely” concerned the attempted removal of Wise will spur teacher turnover, and she conveyed that worry to Peterson.
“We are at the height of hiring season of school districts,” Meek said. “It’s absolutely the worst signal to give to our staff, that we are switching over leadership of an individual that they care deeply about.”
Before the Jan. 31 meeting began, Douglas County Federation President Kevin DiPasquale was eagerly waiting to see what directors would discuss. He had called his own meeting of the DCF that night, scheduling it before directors announced theirs. It was set to begin one hour after the directors would convene.
He expected talk at the union meeting would pivot to any revelations from the directors’ discussion, but he had planned to hear about union members’ concerns with the district’s work environment.
The organization put out a 48-hour survey to district staff roughly two weeks ago. Of 136 respondents, 61% said they are thinking about leaving the district and 43% said they are thinking of leaving the profession altogether.
DiPasquale said survey participants provided multiple reasons for wanting to leave the district or teaching. Those spanned from fears the new board majority is partisan, feeling unsafe in schools where masking is not required or worry about censorship in the classroom.
Following the Jan. 31 allegations, he said veteran staff were shocked and infuriated. The union had not always agreed with Wise’s decisions but plans of removing him in a potentially illegal manner sent shockwaves through the community, he said.
“The sense of fear and retaliation is alive and large,” DiPasquale said Jan. 31.