More than a thousand teachers, parents and students rallied outside Douglas County School District headquarters on Thursday, days after the district was rocked by allegations that its school board’s new conservative majority had illegally moved to force out Superintendent Corey Wise amid tensions over COVID and equity policies.
“I hope they hear us inside,” said Jennifer Cancino, a seventh-grade teacher at Mountain Ridge Middle School in Highlands Ranch. “I hope they hear the message — that we are behind Corey Wise (and) the direction we’ve been going. … Just let us continue to support and guide and teach kids to help them be great people.”
Classes were canceled district-wide after a reported 1,500 teachers called in sick in protest of the alleged effort to remove Wise by four new members of the district’s board of education. The board members — Becky Myers, Kaylee Winegar, Christy Williams and board president Mike Peterson — were elected in November as part of a conservative slate backed by campaign committee Kids First DCSD, capturing the majority on the seven-member board.
On a 4-3 vote, the new board moved quickly to drop district rules aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 by requiring students to wear masks in school, fulfilling a campaign promise to prioritize what the Kids First slate described as “parental choice.” Last week, the board also adopted a resolution paving the way for changes to the district’s equity policy, which was approved in March 2021 and has been targeted by right-wing groups that say it was “influenced by critical race theory.”
Arguing that the current policy is excessively “focused on group identities,” Winegar instead brought forward a resolution affirming the district’s “Culture of Individual Excellence and Inclusion,” which passed on another 4-3 vote after an emotional, hours-long board meeting that featured opposing testimony from students who described instances of racist and sexist bullying in DCSD schools. The measure instructed Wise, as superintendent, to recommend changes to the policy by Sept. 1.
But it’s now unclear how long Wise will remain in that role, after the three DCSD board members who comprise the body’s minority alleged an improper effort by the majority to force Wise’s ouster. In an unusual public meeting on Monday, the three board members described what one, former board president David Ray, called an “unauthorized ultimatum” delivered to Wise by Peterson in the aftermath of last week’s vote on the equity policy.
“President Peterson informed me that he had met, along with Christy Williams, that morning with Superintendent Wise, and had given him the option to resign, or let him know that the board would be moving forward with termination,” said board member Elizabeth Hanson.
Ray, Hanson and board member Susan Meek — all of whom were elected in 2019 with the support of the Douglas County teachers union — say the move both violated the district’s personnel polices and potentially ran afoul of Colorado open-meetings laws. Hanson also alleged that William Trachman, an attorney with the right-wing Mountain States Legal Foundation hired as the board’s counsel, acted unethically by failing to communicate the majority’s plans to the board as a whole.
Peterson did not respond to a request for comment. A post on Kids First DCSD’s Facebook page on Tuesday said the group is “concerned that accusations are being assumed as fact.”
Thursday’s “sick out” drew criticism from conservative commentators in Colorado, including radio host and former district attorney George Brauchler, who called on the district to release the names of the teachers who called in sick. Several people interviewed by Newsline at Thursday’s rally declined to give their names out of fear of retaliation, including one DCSD special education teacher who described comments like Brauchler’s as “nerve-wracking.”
“You do fear retaliation — even though they say that’s against the law, we know it does happen,” the teacher said. “There’s strength in numbers.”
With temperatures in the 20s, rally-goers trudged through snow and marched along Wilcox Street in downtown Castle Rock, chanting Wise’s name and slogans like “Equity matters.”
While the Kids First slate campaigned on “bringing ‘boring’ back to school board meetings” and getting rid of what Winegar, in a Fox News interview, called “adult ideologies and personal politics in the classroom,” rally attendees said the board’s new leadership has only brought more chaos and politicization.
“I try to stay out of the political piece, I just want to be here for kids,” Cancino said. “Corey Wise has been here for 25 years, he’s been a principal, he’s been an administrator … He’s beloved by so many people.
“We want transparency — we want you to follow the sunshine law,” she said of the conservative board members. “We want to make sure that what you’re doing is ethical and you’re being honest. That’s what we’re trying to teach our kids, and so you should be setting an example for that.”
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