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Judge orders Woodland Park School board to follow the law

WOODLAND PARK, Colo. (KRDO) -- A southern Colorado judge is ordering the Woodland Park School District's (WPSD) Board of Directors to "comply with open meeting laws" and "clearly, honestly, and forthrightly list all future agenda items", especially if the agenda item pertains to chartering Merit Academy into the district.

On January 26, 2022, the Board of Directors held a special meeting and voted to sign off on an agreement to begin contract negotiations with a school called Merit Academy. The board intended to add Merit Academy into the district as a charter school.

On the agenda for the special school board meeting on January 26, there is no mention of Merit Academy or any plans to vote on the issue.

Item 5 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.

In Friday's court order, a judge said the housekeeping agenda item was a conscious decision by the board to hide the controversial issue.

According to Colorado's Open Meeting Laws (C.R.S. § 24-6-402(2)(c)(I)), 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." 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."

“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 back in April. "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 January 26 vote was voided, but some parents weren't so forgiving for the lack of clarity.

Last month, Erin O'Connell, a Woodland Park parent filed a lawsuit agains the Woodland Park School District's Board of Directors for violating Colorado Open Meeting laws.

In the court order, District Judge Scott Sells said the housekeeping agenda item was a conscious decision by the board to hide the controversial issue.

O'Connell's suit also alleges that the Woodland Park School board held "walking quorums", and that it's unlawful for two members to communicate outside a public meeting. The Judge didn't find any violations here.

Through the lawsuit, O'Connell attempted to get a judge to halt the chartering process for Merit Academy, and get the original agreement between Merit and WPSD reversed.

The court's also said they have no authority when it comes to stopping the Merit Academy contract discussions or chartering from continuing.

The Woodland Park School Board of Directors was unable to comment on our story, however, the district and School Board President Rusterholtz did provide a statement to 13 Investigates.

"Woodland Park School District is grateful for the judge’s holding, which denied the plaintiff’s claims that the school board violated the law by holding a so-called, “walking quorum.” The plaintiff maintained throughout this case that it is unlawful for two members of a local public body to communicate outside of a public meeting. However, her theory ignores the plain and unambiguous language of the Colorado Open Meetings Law, which explicitly allows two members of the Board of Education to privately discuss public business. For our district, the judge’s clear statement that “I find no violation of the law and … the request for a preliminary injunction prohibiting two board members from meeting is DENIED,” was not surprising.

At the same time, we respect the judge’s insistence that we must always comply with open meetings law by clearly, honestly, and forthrightly listing our agenda items in a manner that meets the requirements of statute. We recognize that public schools have become a place where competing worldviews are constantly in conflict. So, we will best serve our community by striving to provide specific public notice of our anticipated topics of discussion and by always offering genuine, public debate amongst ourselves prior to taking action. 

The court further directed that we may move forward with the consideration of a charter contract with Merit Academy. We will do so humbly. 

We are cognizant that our community maintains a strong interest in our decisions on every education matter. We recognize that we are public servants. While we prevailed legally on the key issues in this lawsuit, we recognize the strong message that the court provided; an expectation that we learn, and that we improve our communication as we work to serve our constituents."

Woodland Park School District

“I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to improve my work as the board president in leading towards greater transparency for our community. We have a great district with teachers and staff leading this next generation of student leaders, and it is absolutely our job as a board to show our students what a great board can look like. I’m committed to seeing this stage of improvement through this next chapter in our district.”

Woodland Park School Board President David Rusterholtz
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Dan Beedie

Dan is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about Dan here.

Comments

4 Comments

  1. “Judge orders Woodland Park School board to follow the law”
    I will file this under, “Statements one would not think needed to be ordered by a judge”.

    1. Agreed. And the fact that any public board has to be issued such an order is an indication that there’s something seriously wrong with that board.

  2. Here is the joke of it all. The parent filing the lawsuit is not against Merit academy. He is simply trying to be a lawnmower parent and go after the school district. This is so ridiculous.

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