Corey Wise has broken his silence — and the ousted superintendent has made a legal complaint against his former employers alleging retaliation, discrimination and that his infamous firing was illegal.
The former Douglas County School District superintendent filed a “complaint of discrimination” on April 13 with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — the agencies that can give formal approval for Wise to sue the district.
He claims the Douglas County School Board majority discriminated and retaliated against him because of his advocacy for the district’s educational equity policy and universal masking during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before he was terminated without cause on Feb. 4, Wise oversaw Colorado’s third-largest school district, serving 64,000 students in nearly 90 schools and employing more than 8,000 people.
A new conservative board majority was elected in November 2021 and quickly began work to lift the district’s masking mandates and consider a repeal of the district’s educational equity policy, issues Wise had supported.
The board majority of Mike Peterson, Becky Myers, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar later fired Wise in a 4-3 vote, a decision that led to protests in the community and among students.
Allegations that the manner of Wise’s firing was illegal surfaced Jan. 31, when the board minority of David Ray, Susan Meek and Elizabeth Hanson publicly alleged the majority used “daisy chain” meetings to plan Wise’s removal out of the public’s eye, and then gave him an ultimatum to resign or be fired in another closed-door meeting.
Wise spent his entire 26-year career with the district, beginning as a teacher and climbing the ranks to superintendent. His superintendent term began on May 12, 2021, and would have ended on June 30, 2024.
Wise’s discrimination complaint alleges the true motives for his firing were the majority’s belief that he stood between them and what the suit describes as discriminatory policies the four wanted to pursue.
While the majority opposed universal masking mandates, Wise stood behind using those precautions in the district to protect high-risk students and staff vulnerable to COVID-19. The former superintendent was also a proponent of the district’s equity policy, which received backlash among local conservatives who equated the policy’s implementation with teaching critical race theory.
“Mr. Wise’s termination was also an illegal act of retaliation against what the board majority perceived as Mr. Wise’s opposition to its policy preferences — but which in fact was Mr. Wise’s legally protected opposition to discrimination, which he in good faith believed was required by state and federal civil rights law,” the complaint says.
The legal document outlines a lengthy list of statements from throughout the majority’s Kids First campaign that Wise’s legal team puts forward as evidence the majority holds discriminatory views against people more susceptible to COVID-19, people of color and LGBTQ+ people.
For example, the complaint cites comments Peterson made disapproving of one of his daughter’s math questions that featured a same-sex couple. The complaint say Peterson has credited the question with inspiring him to run for school board.
Their disapproval of Wise’s involvement in requiring universal masking, and his involvement in a lawsuit the district brought against the masking-mandate-averse local health department, “motivated the board majority to unlawfully terminate Mr. Wise,” the complaint says.
“Likewise, another key platform espoused by the individual respondents was hostility and opposition to gender and sexuality ‘constructs,’ ‘critical race theory’ and anti-discrimination efforts aimed at supporting racial minorities more broadly, which the individual respondents crystallized into opposition to the district’s educational equity policy,” the complaint says.
The ousted superintendent’s complaint also says his firing led to personal suffering, including anxiety and depression, “and has greatly impacted his personal and familial life.”
The allegations do not mean Wise believes he was discriminated or retaliated against as a person of a protected class, but instead because he advocated on behalf of students’ and staff’s civil rights.
Meeting at coffee shop
The complaint offers more detail of the meeting in which board President Peterson and Vice-President Williams privately asked Wise to step down.
The three met at a Parker coffee shop shortly before 7 a.m. on Jan. 28. Peterson told Wise he wanted to “cut to the chase,” the complaint quotes him as saying. Peterson next told Wise the majority spoke independently and “are looking to move into a different direction towards a new superintendent,” according to the complaint.
Williams told Wise she wanted to do right by him and that “we don’t want to make this super public, but we are prepared to do that if that’s the direction in which it has to go,” the complaint quotes Williams as saying.
The complaint says Wise told the directors his entire career had been with DCSD, and the roughly two years left on his contract “timed perfectly with his retirement plans.” He asked why the board wanted a new superintendent, to which Williams purportedly said, “I think we have a pretty good case.”
The complaint quotes Williams as referring to “a lot of things happening behind the scenes to work against the four (new board members). So, when I say we, I’m just talking about the four of us, not the board.”
“I know meetings that have occurred that probably shouldn’t have occurred, without at least Mike knowing,” Williams said to Wise, according to the complaint. The directors said they reviewed all options for ending Wise’s contract with the board’s attorney and asked Wise to move up his retirement plans. They told him four directors were “absolutely committed to moving in a different direction,” the complaint says.
The complaint also says Peterson told Wise that the district would pay him through June 2022, but also “warned Superintendent Wise that he needed to accept the offer, or they might have ‘to go for cause.’”
Wise urged equity policy
The equity policy “embodied, at a system-wide level, the district’s existing legal obligations to address discrimination against its students and staff,” the complaint says.
The district began work on its equity policy under the tenure of former Superintendent Thomas Tucker. The need for the equity policy “was apparent based on the startling lack of diversity in DCSD staff and documented instances of racism experienced by students,” the complaint says.
As of December 2020, the district had one Black principal and 60 Black teachers out of its 4,440 licensed educators. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, students urged the district to make diversity, equity and inclusion a system priority, the complaint says.
Wise had advocated for the equity policy during its creation, and as interim superintendent was “intimately involved with helping to implement the policy” after it was enacted. That included helping the district’s equity team coordinate DCSD’s “first diversity and inclusiveness trainings” and helping develop restorative practices.
The complaint alleging he was illegally fired and retaliated against says the majority’s campaign exposed a hostility among the four toward racial equity.
“Individual respondents also made clear that they did not view Mr. Wise as an ally in their crusade against the equity policy and racial inclusivity generally,” the complaint states.
To manage COVID-19, Wise helped implement hybrid learning as an executive director of schools during the beginning of the 2020-21 school year while Tucker was still superintendent. Wise personally supported in-person learning, the complaint says, but the district moved fully remote from Nov. 30, 2020, through Jan. 5, 2021.
The complaint says political polarization regarding the pandemic increased that October, including in Douglas County.
The complaint highlights how Wise split with the school board in place at the time regarding in-person learning during COVID. While he drafted proposals for a gradual return to in-person learning in January and February of 2021, the board voted against that plan and extended remote learning. Protests ensued.
That October, the newly-formed Douglas County Health Department passed a resolution allowing any child to opt out of masking mandates in the county with a parent’s note. The school district sued in federal court alongside nine students, saying the health order violated the civil rights of students with disabilities and who were especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
“Mr. Wise took seriously his obligation to provide a safe environment for all students and stood in solidarity with students with disabilities who were at greater health risk if they contracted COVID-19,” the complaint states.
DCSD could not comply and provide those students equal access to education, that federal lawsuit said.
Wise was called to testify and “engaged in protected activity,” according to his April 14 filing, by providing a statement alongside the district’s request for a temporary restraining order. Wise said the health department’s order would decrease masking and leave students with disabilities more vulnerable to the virus. A judge granted the district a temporary restraining order in the case.
“No parent should be forced to choose between sending their child to school and risking their child’s health, and no family should have to fear that their child may face life-threatening illness just to access their right to a great education,” Wise said at the time about the judge’s order, according to his complaint.
This is a developing story.