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Dougco school board debates appealing judge's order on open meetings statute

After an hour of tense discussion, board members postponed any action on the judge's injunction until their next regular meeting.

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — The Douglas County Board of Education held a special meeting Friday to discuss their response to a District Court judge's injunction on the board's conservative majority members, but ended up postponing any action until their next regular meeting.

The divided board took up a resolution that would make board President Mike Peterson the board's sole delegation on the lawsuit, and the members argued for an hour over the injunction and whether to appeal it.

In the end, they tabled the discussion until their next regular board meeting set for March 22.

Robert Marshall, a resident of Douglas County, filed a lawsuit in February that claims board directors violated open meeting laws by stringing together one-on-one meetings ahead of the decision to fire Superintendent Corey Wise.

The lawsuit specifically names board directors Becky Myers, Kaylee Winegar, board vice president Christy Williams and Peterson.

District Court Judge Jeffrey Holmes found these members "collectively committed" to fire Wise outside of the public purview. Holmes issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday ordering the conservative majority to conduct business publicly.

The board's minority of Elizabeth Hanson, Susan Meek and David Ray argued that the judge only ordered the board to follow the law and that the cost of appealing the injunction would take money away from students.

"How is taking dollars away from kids doing what's best for the school board and the district?" Hanson asked.

The board's majority argued that they did not violate Colorado law and that the ruling had implications for the board that need to be addressed.

"I'm concerned about the precedent being set by the entire case," Peterson said. "... I think it's in the interest of not only this board but multiple boards to get clarification on what this ruling actually means."

The lawsuit claims the four majority members – Peterson, Winegar, Myers and Williams – decided on and discussed Wise's termination amongst themselves, two people at a time, on multiple occasions.

"... meetings regarding public business must be public not only when decisions are made, but also in situations where 'public business is discussed.' Statutes such as the COML are to be interpreted most favorably to protect the ultimate beneficiary, the public," Holmes' ruling says.

"Circumventing the statute by a series of private one-on-one meetings at which public business is discussed and/or decisions reached is a violation of the purpose of the statute, not just its spirit," the ruling says.

Holmes cited relevant rulings from other states in his analysis.

The injunction does not affect the board's ability to hold executive sessions.

The school board fired Wise in a school board meeting Feb. 4. Jeffco Public Schools has since hired him as a community superintendent.

Board president Peterson testified in a hearing about the lawsuit that he would do business differently from now on.

Afterward, he was asked by reporters about why he chose to use phone conversations rather than emails.

"Did not think about having to preserve a record, didn't see any issues with it at the time, and frankly, it was purely out of convenience, not to circumvent anything," he said.

He added that he doesn't regret his vote Feb. 4 but said he would have done some things differently leading up to it.

Williams and Peterson repeatedly said they did not tell Wise to resign but that they looked over his contract and explained his options after they said they wanted to move in a different direction.

A timeline for hiring a new superintendent was recently approved by the board. 

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