WOODLAND PARK, Colo. (KRDO) – Facing allegations that they violated Colorado state law, the chairman of the Woodland Park School Board said 13 Investigations the board could have been more transparent, but it didn’t break any laws.
Yet parents accuse the school board of hiding their plans to add a contract school to the district.
On January 26, the Woodland Park School Board of Trustees held a special meeting and voted to sign an agreement to begin contract negotiations with Merit Academy. The board intends to add Merit Academy to the district as a charter school.
On the agenda for the January 26 special school board meeting, there is no mention of Merit Academy or any plans to vote on the matter.
The fifth point of the agenda is entitled “Interview of the board of directors”. According to minutes from the Jan. 26 school board meeting, the board used the agenda item “Board Talk” to discuss and unanimously approve an agreement to add Merit Academy to the district. as a charter school.
“To say that housekeeping says nothing to the public about what’s actually going to be considered under that agenda item,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
According to Colorado’s open meeting laws, local public bodies are deemed to comply with the “complete and timely” requirement if they post a notice in a designated public place at least 24 hours before a meeting. The posting should include specific information about the agenda “whenever possible”. CRS § 24-6-402(2)(c)(I). A local public body is also in compliance if it posts meeting notices online “with specific agenda information if available.”
According to meeting minutes, Woodland Park School Board Secretary Chris Austin said the vagueness of the ‘Board Interview’ agenda item would erode “what little trust we have with our stakeholders”.
However, school district attorney Brad Miller went on to say that “not all items should be on the agenda until the board of education is aware.”
“If a board knows an issue is coming up, they should put it on the agenda,” Roberts said. “He has to put it on the notice and he has to put it 24 hours in advance. So the public knows what to expect.
13 Investigations obtained emails showing that the Woodland Park School District superintendent, attorney, vice president, and president sent or received emails regarding the Merit Academy deal four days before the meeting January 26 special.
In an email, attorney Brad Miller suggests preparing the agreement, and if the respective parties sign the agreement, they can begin the contract phase immediately.
However, emails sent more than 24 hours before the meeting do not directly address the vote on adding Merit Academy at the next meeting.
On the day of the special meeting, Woodland Park School Board Vice President David Illingsworth asks why he can’t find anything about Merit Academy on the agenda. Attorney Brad Miller says “I believe that’s on the agenda.”
“After the meeting and being questioned by a number of people. I thought yes, I could have done it in a much more transparent way,” Woodland Park School Board President David Rusterholtz said. 13 Investigations. “At the very next meeting we had put on the agenda, the ‘Merit Academy Memorandum of Understanding’ would be discussed and voted on.”
The Woodland Park school board president said the Jan. 26 vote was overturned, but some parents weren’t so forgiving about the lack of clarity.
Erin O’Connell, a parent of three in the Woodland Park school system, filed a lawsuit in the district court. The suit sought an injunction to slow the merger with Merit Academy. The complaint alleges that the School Board of the Woodland Park School District violated Colorado’s open meeting laws.
“Our problem is not with Merit Academy itself, but rather with the process the board followed to get there,” O’Connell said. 13 Investigations. “We believe they were offered a memorandum of understanding in violation of open meeting laws.”
O’Connell later withdrew the complaint.
“I really strive to be wide open and make sure people know what we’re doing,” Rusterholtz said. “There is nothing to hide. We view this, or I view this as a very noble cause for improving education in the Woodland Park School District.
Rusterholtz says parents have always asked for choice in the district when it comes to education, and Merit Academy would provide just that. However, many more parents are concerned that the addition of Merit Academy will hurt existing students.
In an email sent to faculty and staff on March 1, Superintendent Dr. Mathew Neal said the board plans to share the district’s college facilities with Merit Academy beginning in the 2022-23 school year.
“While facility utilization remains a priority for our upcoming Facility Planning Steering Committee, the District has recognized the need for a timely decision, especially as WPSD and Merit are scheduled to begin planning for the modification of building space,” Dr. Neal told faculty and staff. in the email. “Furthermore, the district is confident that this plan will continue to meet the needs of our middle school students and honor the value we place on our community elementary schools.”
The school board met on Wednesday to discuss Merit Academy’s bid to use its facilities, but during public comments dozens of people came forward to express concerns about the district’s decision to share. college with Merit Academy.
“First of all, it impacts the whole 6th grade wing and really the whole school,” O’Connell said. “Everyone has to change classrooms. This removes many rooms used for very specialist services. Special education rooms, boardrooms, some of our dining spaces will be completely uprooted. Failure to having these facilities really affects the students.”
Rusterholtz says Woodland Park Middle School is currently operating at less than 50% capacity and has room for existing students and a growing merit academy.