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Parent accuses Woodland Park school board of breaking state law despite court order

WOODLAND PARK, Colo. (KRDO) -- A Woodland Park School District (WPSD) parent is calling on a judge to hold the local Board of Education in contempt of court. She's accusing the district of continuing to violate Colorado Open Meeting Laws despite a court order telling the board to adhere to state law.

Erin O’Connell, the WPSD parent that filed the motion last month, is seeking that a judge orders appropriate relief from the Woodland Park School District's Board of Education. Five days after a court order directed the board to follow Colorado Open Meeting Laws, O'Connell alleges the agenda for Special Board meeting held on May 4 was purposefully left vague by the Woodland Park Board of Education.

On April 29, 2022, a Southern Colorado judge ordered the Woodland Park School District's 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, 2022, 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 the April court order, a judge said the housekeeping agenda item was a conscious decision by the board to hide the controversial issue.

The motion filed by O'Connell points out that on May 1 Woodland Park School Board President David Rusterholtz responded to the April 29 court order in a statement to 13 Investigates.

"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."

Woodland Park School Board President David Rusterholtz

On May 4, the Woodland Park District School Board held a work session and special board meeting. On the agenda, an item reads "Feasibility Study Presentation by Executive Director of Technology & Operations Miles Tuttle followed by BOE Q & A with Cooperative Strategies."

The agenda item makes no mention of Merit Academy.

The motion filed in June by O'Connell alleges "the meeting was in fact held to hear a presentation by Board Staff Miles Tuttle and review a feasibility study prepared by private entity Cooperative Strategies concerning the feasibility of Merit Academy sharing space with Woodland Park Middle School (WPMS)."

An advisement hearing for the case was held in a Teller County courtroom on Tuesday, and a follow-up hearing was scheduled for September 2, 2022.

An attorney representing the Woodland Park School District Board of Education for this case told 13 Investigates via email "my client is not willing to comment on pending litigation at this time, other than to say that we firmly disagree that the Board's agenda of May 4, 2022 was a violation of the Open Meetings Law. Thank you."

"It seems like a pretty straight forward violation of the court's order," Attorney Steve Zansberg told 13 Investigates. Zansberg is the current President of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and routinely represents citizens in challenging violations of open meeting laws.

Some of these suits include school boards. The attorney from Denver is currently representing a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the board of education in Douglas County for violating Open Meetings Law. 

"The school board will have an opportunity to respond to it, and the judge will hear from the school board," Zansberg said. "But it seems pretty straightforward that they did exactly as the plaintiff alleges. Just a couple of days after being ordered to explicitly mention Merit Academy at any time it's supposed to be the subject of discussion they issued an agenda that did not include the words Merit Academy and yet they discussed it."

Zansberg says contempt of court sanctions is at the discretion of the judge. Typically it is a small fine, however, Zansberg says it would take an egregious and ongoing contempt of a court order for there to be any type of incarceration.

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Dan Beedie

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

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