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Douglas County School District pays $832,733 to settle fired Superintendent Corey Wise’s unlawful termination claim

The Douglas County School District paid former Superintendent Corey Wise more than $830,000 to settle discrimination claims over his firing last year after he advocated for students with disabilities and youth of color, Wise’s attorneys announced Monday.

Wise filed claims with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment alleging Board of Education members Becky Myers, Michael Peterson, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar unlawfully terminated him without cause in violation of his First Amendment and due process rights, according to the Rathod Mohamedbhai law firm.

The Douglas County School District declined to comment on the settlement.

Two of the school board members named in the claim responded to The Denver Post.

Peterson said he would not allow the matter to distract him from focusing on students and securing more competitive pay for teachers and staff.

“I voted to terminate the former superintendent due to a lack of competency – period,” Peterson said. “He was paid out in full in accordance with his contract. In response to threatened civil rights litigation, the school district’s insurance provider agreed to settle with him. Per the settlement agreement, the former superintendent has agreed this is not an admission of liability on the part of the school district.”

Williams said she is thankful to finally move forward.

“I voted to terminate the former superintendent over a year ago because I felt he was unable to meet the requirements of an efficient and effective leader,” Williams said.

Wise said the school board put politics over students.

“The message I want this to send is that there are real consequences when politics enters public education,” Wise told The Denver Post on Monday. “I was discriminated against. This is not OK. I’m grateful, humbled, feel validated and vindicated through this process and, hopefully, we can make better days ahead of us.”

The Douglas County School District paid Wise $270,733 for the remainder of his superintendent contract and is paying out $562,000 to resolve all of Wise’s unlawful termination claims, his attorneys said, for a total of $832,733.

All of the settlement money is being paid through the Douglas County School District’s insurance policies, Wise’s attorneys said in a news release, meaning no funds were diverted from students.

“The not-so-thinly-veiled discriminatory and retaliatory animus exhibited by Board Members Myers, Peterson, William and Winegar toward historically vulnerable and disenfranchised students in the district and their advocates has resulted in real harm to Douglas County’s students and their quality of education,” said Iris Halpern, Wise’s attorney, in a statement. “Sadly, these individuals have put their own political aspirations and plotting over the well-being and success of students and families in the district.”

Douglas County District Court Judge Jeffrey K. Holmes issued a preliminary injunction last month in a lawsuit brought by a state lawmaker who lives in Douglas County over the school school board’s firing of Wise. The judge ruled that board members Peterson, Myers, Winegar and Williams circumvented public meeting laws by conducting one-on-one meetings with each other to discuss firing Wise.

“The hiring and firing of a school district’s superintendent is clearly a matter of public business,” Holmes wrote. “It is a subject that can generate strong feelings and it is a matter on which the public can expect to be fully informed. Discussion by members of the (school board), let alone ultimate decisions on this subject, should be conducted at meetings open to the public. The evidence indicates that four members of the board collectively committed, outside of public meetings, to the termination of Wise’s employment.”

The injunction warns the Douglas County school board not to circumvent public meetings laws going forward.

The board’s conservative majority fired Wise because he supported students and staff wearing masks in schools to protect themselves and their families against COVID-19, and because of his role in developing and implementing the district’s equity policy, Wise alleges in his discrimination complaint.

Wise was integral in developing a district equity policy that stated the school district would “offer and afford every student and staff member equitable educational opportunities regardless of race, color, ancestry, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, religion, national origin, marital status, disability, socio-economic status or eligibility for special education services.”

Some school board members campaigned against the policy, erroneously claiming it pushed critical race theory.

When the board majority was elected, they voted to create a new equity resolution that removed the previous initiatives to ensure representation, accessibility, diversity, equity and inclusion within all district-approved curricula.

Wise along with nine parents of children with disabilities sued the Douglas County Health Department after the agency decided in 2021 that students and staff no longer had to wear face masks to combat COVID-19.

A week after the vote on the equity policy, the school board fired Wise last February without cause. His termination sparked protests among teachers and students and a lawsuit alleging school board members violated open-meeting laws.

Now, Wise is serving as the Cherry Creek School District’s interim assistant superintendent. The lifelong educator said it would be hard not to want to go back to Douglas County School District, but that it was “complicated.”

“I expected to retire there, but now I’m taking it day by day and year by year,” Wise said.

Halpern said it was important to contextualize Wise’s win in a national context.

“Our school systems and libraries have been highly politicized at the expense of individuals and communities historically marginalized and disenfranchised, so it’s important to understand that our current politics should not be just vilifying those among us who have had the least access to our public intuitions, historically,” Halpern said. “It may be a convenient political agenda at the moment in order to gain power, but it does real harm to its victims and it does real harm to the entire society.”

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