Colorado school board’s right-wing majority fires superintendent for attacking COVID mitigations

At a special meeting of the Douglas County School District Board of Trustees at its headquarters in Castle Rock, Colorado on Feb. 4, the four-member conservative majority voted to fire the school’s superintendent. Corey Wise. Wise, who had worked in the district for 25 years, was named superintendent last spring.

Wise’s ousting was the culmination of a week of turmoil in the district, as the new right-wing majority on the council, elected last November, decided to purge the superintendent whom they saw as favorable to the terms of mask and other COVID mitigation policies.

Corey Wise (credit: Douglas County)

During a public meeting on Zoom on January 31, the three members of the seven-member minority council, Elizabeth Hanson, Susan Meek and David Ray, accused the members of the conservative majority, including council chairman Mike Peterson and Vice President Christy Williams, for confronting Sage with the choice of resigning or being ousted by a vote of the board.

According to Ray, issuing the ultimatum to Wise was in violation of Colorado’s open meeting law, which requires that whenever two or more council members are discussing a matter related to the district, they must first have 24 hours notice and the meeting must be open to the public to observe.

According to a report by cpr.org, “The decision to get rid of the superintendent took community members and the three minority board members by surprise. According to Hanson, Meek and Ray, there was no board discussion, public or in a private executive session, no notice of majority board intentions, and no prior discussion with Wise at the subject to problems related to his professional performance.

In addition, minority council members said Will Trachman, a majority-recruited attorney, did not communicate with the council’s minority or the district’s legal counsel regarding the meeting with Wise. Hanson, who is an attorney, said she would file an ethics complaint against Trachman for contractual and ethical violations.

The next day, Peterson implausibly claimed in a statement, “Last week’s conversation,” that is, the ultimatum and threat, “was to provide our superintendent with the information necessary to participate in a ongoing discussion. I will continue to engage all board directors on this.

That day, Thursday, February 3, hundreds of Douglas County educators called for replacements, resulting in some 1,500 teacher absences and forcing schools to close. More than a thousand teachers, parents and students braved freezing weather – and threats of retaliation – to stage a spirited protest at school board headquarters in Castle Rock, the county seat, with many placards in favor of Wise. An online petition to retain Wise had by then garnered nearly 9,000 signatures.

At the February 4 meeting, the minority’s motion to postpone the meeting was defeated. Although Peterson said the meeting would be public and the minority had called for public comment, the chairman of the board said: “Because of last Monday’s meeting and numerous emails, we had a lot of public comments.”

There followed a debate and a plea from Wise – “Let me prove it, and if I don’t then go out and have this conversation, but please don’t do it for a weekend- end” – a closed executive session was convened during which the intended conclusion was achieved and Wise was fired.

In an indication of the determination of the right-wing majority to oust the superintendent, Peterson acknowledged the unpopularity of the action. “Just because a leader is loved and respected doesn’t mean they have the skills, vision and ability to lead the great district,” Peterson said.

After the vote, Hanson said: “I have to be very clear that this decision was in no way about performance, and it is about politics and its ugliest, most pure and most destructive,” while Ray called the decision “the day you devastated the education of over 60,000 children.

With a population of over 350,000, Douglas County comprises the southernmost suburb of the Denver metro area. It’s just south of Littleton, Colorado, site of the 1999 school massacre. It has a 2-to-1 majority of Republicans among registered voters, but only narrowly went for Donald Trump over Joe Biden in the 2020 elections.

In November 2021, however, a right-wing slate swept the school board election, amid confusion, anger and disruption caused by school closures, disputes, lawsuits and heated town hall meetings on the mask mandates and other issues such as charter schools and the unsubstantiated claim that the Douglas County School Board was imposing critical race theory on unsuspecting children.

The conservative list, cynically calling themselves Kids First – Peterson, Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar – posed as the advocates of ‘parental control’ and won four seats on the seven-member board after a heated campaign . The slate was well financed by “black money” whose sources they were not required to reveal.

Additionally, Slate, through her campaign manager Holly Osborne, was portrayed as not being ultra-conservative but simply wanting to achieve “some balance” on the council. In fact, Osborne claimed the slate was open to measures such as increasing teacher pay through property tax increases and opposed school vouchers.

Once elected, however, the platform of the new majority did not focus on “balance”.

On December 7, the majority voted to hire Trachman despite objections over cost and other concerns.

On December 8, the council passed a resolution allowing parents not to wear masks. State health officials’ removal of the two-week two-to-five case outbreak classification standard for schools meant an undercount would result.

According to a report from westword.com: “The total number of new or changed entries in the CDPHE’s January 26 outbreak survey was 211 – less than the 237 on January 19, but more than triple the sixty counted just over a month earlier on December 15. Currently, 1,252 homes are under active investigation, down from 1,090 on January 19 and 889 on January 12. Among the new entries, 135 sites experienced at least one previous outbreak.

Last week, outbreaks occurred in thirteen schools in Douglas County.

In a video presentation in January with two other local officials, Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon and County Board of Health Chairman Doug Benevento, Peterson denounced policymakers who “react emotionally to the number of cases with fear and institute unique mandates and restrictions. ”

In the same video, Commissioner Laydon said that from now on severity, not the number of cases, will set policy and urged healthcare workers who had left the field to return to work. He cited the agreement of Democratic and Republican party policymakers, including President Biden and Colorado Governor Jared Polis, that COVID-19 had become endemic, not pandemic.

Benvenuto, claiming the Omicron variant is “less severe” than Delta, said, “Until we see meaningful severity measurements, such restrictions will not occur in Douglas County” and “instead of react to the number of cases, we will respond to the severity. Instead of responding with fear-driven mandates and restrictions, we will respond with courage and freedom of choice in health care.

The school board minority offers no alternative to the right-wing campaign that led to Superintendent Wise’s firing. Tied to the Democrats and the labor apparatus, all they can offer working-class parents and students is the vaccine-only policy failure that has helped spawn more vaccine-resistant variants. The overarching goal, as is the case with the majority of the council, is to keep parents working while their children attend dangerous schools.

Parents and students in Colorado and elsewhere are showing signs of growing resistance to both approaches to the pandemic. What is needed are democratically run organizations – rank-and-file committees – which act independently of the bourgeois parties and their union annexes.

About Robert Wright

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