When Corey Wise, the ousted superintendent of Douglas County Schools, received a text asking for a coffee shop meeting among him and the school board president and vice president, he thought the request seemed odd.
“The setting up of the meeting was out of character,” he said.
The board president and vice president wanted to meet out of the blue and quickly, Wise said, requesting to speak early on Jan. 28 before Wise left town for some planned time off. They also wanted to meet in person.
“I was worried about what that was about,” Wise said.
So Wise recorded the conversation. The former superintendent said he wanted to be factual and have an accurate record about what was said to him that day.
In the meeting, Wise said he was clearly told the new board majority was committed to removing him as superintendent if he did not retire or resign. By Feb. 4, the board terminated Wise without cause in a split 4-3 decision.
Direct quotes from Wise’s recording help make up a portion of a legal complaint Wise brought against the district on April 13, alleging his firing was illegal, discriminatory and retaliation for his advocacy behind universal masking and the district’s equity policy.
The complaint offers the first in-depth look at Wise’s perspective about the way he was fired and why board members said he was no longer the right leader for DCSD.
Wise also alleges he was fired because he would not support what the complaint describes as discriminatory and racist policies the new board majority — Mike Peterson, Becky Myers, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar — wanted to pursue by unraveling the district’s equity policy and banning mask mandates.
As an example of what the legal complaint calls the majority’s unlawful views, the complaint cites comments from Peterson during his campaign, in which he disapproved of his daughter’s math homework referencing a same-sex couple.
The complaint also comprises four charges of aiding and abetting workplace discrimination against the newly elected board majority individually, and the team will soon file a whistleblower claim. Under a recently passed state law, the Colorado Public Health Emergency Whistleblower Act, whistleblowers are protected from retaliation if they report public health concerns.
Wise’s testimony during a federal lawsuit the district brought against the local health department — which sought to shield the district’s ability to require universal masking on behalf of students with disabilities — was protected activity, said Iris Halpern, one of Wise’s attorneys from Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC.
“It’s exactly what he did. This man followed the law, and it shows you how the protected activity, how deep it went. Firing him for engaging in this type of behavior is just grossly unlawful,” said Qusair Mohamedbhai, another of Wise’s attorneys at the Denver-based firm. Wise is also represented by the Denver firm Allen, Vellone, Wolf, Helfrich & Factor.
Colorado Community Media has requested interviews from Douglas County School Board majority directors: Peterson, Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar.
The four have consistently maintained they followed Colorado law in their handling of Wise’s termination. Williams and Peterson have also said during board meetings they considered asking Wise privately to retire or resign as the respectful thing to do, rather than forcing a public termination process.
“It wasn’t just, we want to look at what’s best for you,” Wise said, recalling comments from the majority that framed the Jan. 28 meeting as a favor to him. He believes their priority was getting him out quietly, he said.
On Jan. 28, Peterson purportedly told Wise that the district would pay him for the remainder of that semester if he accepted their offer to retire early, but if he did not, the board might pursue termination for cause, according to the legal complaint.
Wise said it was threatening, intimidation and bullying.
He also broached that his successor, former charter school leader Erin Kane, texted him a photo of portions of his contract and the Jeffco Schools superintendent contract less than an hour after his Jan. 28 meeting ended with Peterson and Williams.
Peterson has publicly acknowledged that he approached Kane to see if she had interest in the superintendency before Wise was fired. Kane has emphatically denied she knew about plans to fire Wise or that she colluded for the superintendency.
“The fact that Erin Kane texted me shortly afterwards,” Wise said. “Erin Kane texted me before the other board members know. Again, I don’t see that as kind.”
Wise got “very little sleep” the weekend after, he said, calling the Jan. 28 meeting “traumatic.”
Once the meeting became public knowledge, Peterson said Wise was not ordered to step down and that he was merely given time to weigh his options or leave on his own terms if he wanted.
Wise said he was not surprised the board majority ultimately fired him. He believes “the decision had been made” before Peterson and Williams met with him. The legal complaint also quotes Peterson as telling Wise the majority was committed to replacing him as superintendent.
The firing turned Wise’s world upside down, he said. It affected his wife, his children, his parents, and spurred a range of emotions.
“I need benefits for my family. I need a job for my family. Everyone thinks ‘Oh, you have it set,’” he said. “Life isn’t that easy.”
The legal complaint also says his firing led to anxiety and depression, amid other emotional distress.
“It’s the first time in your life where everything gets flipped upside down and it’s unexpected and I don’t think it’s deserving,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on mental health, and that everyone experiences trauma, Wise said. It changed his mindset too.
“Seeking out help. Talking to somebody. Talking to a professional. I think that’s a positive,” he said.
Wise has landed a new job with the Cherry Creek School District as an assistant superintendent. Since he left Douglas County Schools, he has worked for Jeffco Public Schools as an executive director of school.
He’s been grateful for an overwhelming show of support from people in the community and throughout Colorado, he said. He’s also confident in his work on educational equity and COVID-19 management that he says wrongfully provoked his termination.
“I would do it again,” he said.