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Woodland Park School Board President says district broke no laws, but could’ve been more ‘transparent’

WOODLAND PARK, Colo. (KRDO) -- In the face of allegations that they violated Colorado state law, Woodland Park's school board president tells 13 Investigates the board could've been more transparent, but they broke no laws.

Still, parents accuse the school board of hiding their plans to add a contract school into the district.

On January 26, the Woodland Park School Board of Directors held a special meeting and voted to sign off on an agreement to begin contract negotiations with Merit Academy. The board intends to add Merit Academy into the district as a charter school.

On the agenda for the special school board meeting on Jan 26, there is zero mention of Merit Academy or any plans to vote on the issue.

Item five on the agenda is titled "Board Housekeeping." According to the minutes from the January 26 school board meeting, the board used the "Board Housekeeping" agenda item to discuss and unanimously approve an agreement to add Merit Academy into the district as a charter school.

“Saying housekeeping doesn’t tell the public anything about what is actually going to be considered under that agenda item,” said Jeff Roberts, the Executive Director for the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.  

According to Colorado's Open Meeting Laws, local public bodies are deemed in compliance with the “full and timely” requirement if they post a notice in a designated public place at least 24 hours before a meeting. The posting must include specific agenda information “where possible.” C.R.S. § 24-6-402(2)(c)(I)A local public body also is in compliance if it posts meeting notices online “with specific agenda information if available.” 

According to the meeting minutes, Woodland Park School Board Secretary Chris Austin said the vagueness of the agenda item "Board Housekeeping" would erode "what little trust we have with our stakeholders."

However, the school district's attorney Brad Miller followed by saying "not all items have to be listed on the agenda as long as the Board of Education Directors are aware."

“If a board knows that a matter is going to come up they need to put that on the agenda," said Roberts. "They need to put that on the notice and they need to put that on the notice 24 hours ahead of time. So the public knows what to expect.” 

13 Investigates obtained emails showing the Woodland Park School District's Superintendent, Attorney, Vice President, and President sent or received emails about the agreement with Merit Academy four days before the Jan. 26 special meeting.

In one email, attorney Brad Miller suggests preparing the agreement, and if the respective sides sign off on agreement they can begin the contract phase immediately.

However, the emails sent more than 24 hours before the meeting do not directly discuss voting on the addition of Merit Academy during the upcoming meeting.

On the day of the special meeting, Woodland Park School Board Vice President David Illingsworth asks why he can't find anything on Merit Academy on the agenda. Attorney Brad Miller says 'I believe it is on the agenda.'

“After the meeting and being questioned by a number of people. I thought yes I could’ve done it much more transparently,” Woodland Park School Board President David Rusterholtz told 13 Investigates. "At the very next meeting, we had it on the agenda listed 'Merit Academy Memorandum of Understanding' would be discussed and voted on."

The Woodland Park school board president says the Jan. 26 vote was voided, but some parents weren't so forgiving for the lack of clarity.

Erin O'Connell, a Woodland Park school system parent of three, filed a complaint through district court. The complaint requested an injunction to slow down the merger with Merit Academy. The complaint alleges the Woodland Park School District Board of Education violated Colorado's Open Meeting laws.

"Our problem isn't about Merit Academy itself, but more about the process the board is taking to get there," O'Connell told 13 Investigates. "We feel they were offered an MOU in violation with open meeting laws."

O'Connell later pulled the complaint.

“I really do strive to be wide open and to make sure people know what we are doing," said Rusterholtz. "There is nothing to hide. We consider this, or I consider this a very noble cause. to improve the education at Woodland Park School District.” 

Rusterholtz says parents have consistently asked for choice within the district when it comes to education, and Merit Academy would provide just that. However, many more parents fear the addition of Merit Academy will hurt existing students.

In an email sent out to faculty and staff on March 1, Superintendent Dr. Mathew Neal said the board is considering sharing the district's middle school facilities with Merit Academy starting in the 2022-23 school year.

"While facilities usage remains a priority for our upcoming Master Facilities Planning Committee, the District recognized the timely need for a decision, especially as WPSD and Merit need to begin plans this spring to modify the building space," Dr. Neal told faculty and staff in the email. "Additionally, the District feels confident that this plan will continue to meet the needs of our Middle School students and honor the value we hold for our community-based elementary schools."

Wednesday, the school board met to discuss the Merit Academy application for using their facilities, but during public comment, dozens came forward to voice their concerns with the district's move to share the middle school with Merit Academy.

"First of all, it impacts the entire 6th-grade wing and really the whole school," O'Connell said. "Everyone has to shift classrooms. It removes a lot of rooms being used for very specialized services. Special ed rooms, counseling rooms, some of our restorative spaces, they will be completely uprooted. Not having those facilities really affect the students."

Rusterholtz says Woodland Park Middle School is currently operating at less than 50% capacity and has room for both the existing students and a growing Merit Academy.

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