Douglas County School Board member Elizabeth Hanson hung up the phone on board President Mike Peterson in less than seven minutes.
He called Jan. 28 to let Hanson know he and Vice-President Christy Williams met privately with then Superintendent Corey Wise earlier that morning. They had told Wise the board majority of Peterson, Williams, Becky Myers and Kaylee Winegar individually agreed the district needed to go in a new direction with leadership.
Hanson lambasted Peterson, ended the call, sent fellow minority Director David Ray a text reading “9-1-1” and then called Director Susan Meek. Hanson and Meek decided to ask the superintendent about the meeting directly.
They looped Wise into their call. He confirmed that Peterson and Williams informed him that morning a “strong four” on the board wanted him out, Hanson said.
While the three of them spoke, Wise got a text message.
Erin Kane texted Wise a photo. Kane, a former interim superintendent for the district, was rumored as the majority’s favored replacement for Wise.
The picture showed a computer screen displaying two paragraphs. The first was from the Jefferson County Schools superintendent contract citing the professional responsibilities of the superintendent, Hanson said. The second paragraph was from Wise’s own contract about the same topic, she said.
“Our conversation at that point shifted,” Hanson said, describing all three as shocked. Less than an hour after Wise was told he could step down or face removal, Hanson wanted to know, “Why is Erin Kane looking at your employment contract?”
“This was just one more piece of the puzzle that made absolutely no sense to any of us,” Hanson said.
This timeline was revealed through public records and interviews by Colorado Community Media.
Meetings, calls, texts
In a whirlwind marathon of in-person meetings, phone calls and text conversations, Jan. 28 became the catalyst that spurred Douglas County Schools into weeks of uproar — quickly called board meetings; alleged open meeting law violations; a subsequent lawsuit over those claims; protests and walkouts; the official firing of Wise; rumors that Kane was pre-determined to succeed Wise; fears about retaliation against teachers critical of the board; and a controversially short timeline to find a new superintendent.
The pendulum of district controversies swung into motion at roughly 7 a.m. Jan. 28 when Peterson and Williams met with Wise at a Parker coffee shop, bringing to his attention desires among majority board members to change leadership.
Public records including recorded phone calls among board members obtained by Colorado Community Media through records requests offer more detail on how the day unfolded and exactly what was said regarding the consequential meeting with Wise.
Directors Williams, Myers and Winegar have not responded to repeated interview requests with Colorado Community Media between Jan. 31 and press time. Peterson declined an interview for this story, a spokeswoman said. He provided responses to some emailed questions.
In public meetings, all majority directors have emphatically maintained they followed open meeting laws and defended their decision to remove Wise, saying he was not the right leader for DCSD.
Kane initially agreed to an interview about communications between her and Wise on Jan. 28 but later provided a statement through a spokeswoman, declining to speak with Colorado Community Media.
Kane said she inadvertently texted Wise on Jan. 28. Both Peterson and Kane have publicly acknowledged Peterson asked Kane several weeks ago whether she would be interested in the superintendency if it became vacant.
“Based on that, I had the impression Corey might be leaving. It is not unusual for superintendents to leave when school boards flip (look at me, Susana Cordova, etc.),” Kane wrote in her statement, referencing the former Denver Public Schools superintendent. “I could never have predicted how that departure (Wise’s) came about, and I am saddened for everyone involved — especially our district.”
Kane said she and Wise remained friendly during his tenure, “even when we disagreed,” and that it was unfortunate she “inadvertently sent” the Jan. 28 text.
“I was thinking about him and looked at his contract to see if he was protected (he was — with one year of salary), and I noticed the way it was written gave the board more power over the day to day than I believed was typical so I compared it to the Jeffco contract,” Kane said in her statement.
In the Jan. 28 calls, majority directors said the desire to change district leadership had heightened in the previous couple of weeks to the point Williams and Peterson decided to bring the issue to Wise directly.
Peterson has said his intent was to let board members Ray, Meek and Hanson know ahead of time that he and Williams planned to meet with Wise, but that timing did not work out.
Peterson and Williams began notifying the three minority members in the hours after the meeting, starting with Hanson. Peterson and Hanson spoke by phone at approximately 7:20 a.m. Williams called Ray and the two spoke at approximately 10:30 a.m. Peterson connected with Meek a few minutes past noon.
Two issues took center stage in the more than 40-minute conversation between Williams and Ray and the roughly 15-minute conversation between Peterson and Meek.
One was a deep mistrust among directors, which had brewed throughout the start of the majority directors’ terms but developed into a chasm throughout their conversations.
That division within the board partly fueled the second major issue before them — that majority directors agreed Wise should be removed from his post — amid other frustrations with the district.
How they broke the news
Both Williams and Peterson stressed to minority directors they had spoken with majority directors in one-on-one conversations.
“Very conscious of open meeting laws,” Peterson told Meek in that vein.
Concerns about Wise’s leadership were brought to Peterson’s attention over the previous couple weeks, Peterson said, which they relayed to the superintendent that morning.
He indicated to Meek that Wise asked if the majority was sure they wanted to move forward with wanting new leadership.
“And I said, 'well, we have four of us. We will talk with the other directors, but you know, once four are committed to moving in a different direction.' You know, I wanted to talk to him, and frankly see if he wanted to do things on his own terms,” Peterson told Meek.
Peterson told Meek that Wise had four days to come back to the directors with a decision about his next steps, so he could speak with family and legal representation if he wanted to.
Peterson said depending on Wise’s decision — whether he wanted to retire, wait longer to retire or not retire yet — the situation could progress in one of several ways. Peterson said he and Williams had already discussed with the board’s legal counsel, Will Trachman, all the options to end Wise’s contract.
Williams opened her conversation with Ray by briefly talking about the contentiousness of running the district, and how she thought being a board member would go differently. And she wanted to cut to the chase, she said.
“I've talked to the other directors, or at least the newly elected directors, and we've all been on the same page that we just feel like we need different leadership in the district,” Williams said. “Because we don't feel, well there's a lot of reasons, but we don't feel supported. We feel like there's pushback at every turn. And there have been things that have been going on behind our backs that we've found out about.”
Williams told Ray she and Peterson met with Wise that morning and informed him about the majority’s position.
“And so, he is considering, at this point, a resignation,” Williams said.
Williams told Ray “we are prepared.” She said she sincerely took on being a board member with hopes of working with Wise, and she knew “there’s a lot of people out there that aren’t going to believe” her on that point.
As their conversation progressed, Ray asked Williams why she and Peterson felt they had “the authority” to deliver Wise the message they did.
“What we said, we said to Corey is that, you know, we do have a strong four that, that are prepared to move forward. And we hope that's not the direction that this goes. But I can tell you that the four newly elected people are prepared,” Williams said.
Ray pushed for more clarity and asked Williams, “so you said that you have a strong four to move forward with what?” Williams at first stumbled in responding and eventually said “that he could consider his resignation, but we wanted a different direction for the future.”
She later definitively told Ray the district would go in a different direction with leadership.
Wise undermined newly elected directors, Williams said, and did not quell division among board members. She told Ray that after observing Wise outside board meetings, she did not think Wise was good at decision making.
She was upset members of Wise’s leadership team had met with some board members without Peterson's knowledge.
“He's doing things behind the scenes to, to hurt us,” she said.
Williams did not name which directors or district leadership she was talking about but clarified Ray was not part of those meetings. Peterson also referenced meetings he had not been aware of and his perception that staff received directions he was not aware of.
Meek asked which meetings and among whom Peterson was speaking about, pointing out the board is not “engaged in staff meetings.” Peterson concurred the board has one employee, the superintendent, and directors can’t tell the superintendent “who to hire, who to fire, you know, or, or how to direct his staff.”
“I can’t test Jonny Grusing. I can’t check, test Andy Abner,” he said, referencing the district's head of security and an assistant superintendent.
Peterson also discussed a letter that dozens of district principals signed urging the board to keep DCSD’s equity policy as is. On Jan. 25, majority directors approved a resolution telling the superintendent to evaluate potential changes to the policy. Wise has said he did not know district building leaders were coordinating that letter.
“That’s not a specific cite, that would never rise to, like, cause or anything like that. But it’s just an example of if you don’t know what your staff is doing, that’s one indicator, one metric of, you know leadership and what’s happening in the district,” Peterson said.
Williams said the board could not wait to change leadership until the end of the school year while the district also worked toward pursuing a mill levy override and the possibility of a bond in November.
“We can't do that. We don't have the time,” she said.
Peterson said he told Wise that “normally we would be having this conversation maybe a little later in the year.” But because the district might pursue a mill levy override and bond, they wanted to ask about his retirement plans now “and frankly, if you would consider moving those up,” he had said to Wise, according to Peterson’s conversation with Meek.
Meek said superintendent turnover leads to significant employee turnover and would lessen the odds DCSD can pass a mill levy override or bond ballot initiative. Peterson told her he had assessed that risk.
Although Williams offered some insight into her rationale, she said she had a lengthier list of concrete reasons she believed the district needed new leadership.
In their Jan. 28 call, Ray and Williams agreed to have a separate meeting to discuss more of Williams' specific reasons for replacing Wise. Ray told Colorado Community Media that meeting did not take place.
The choice to record
Hanson was the only one of the three minority board members who did not record her conversation.
Hanson told Colorado Community Media she recalled telling Peterson he had no idea what he was doing, that employees would leave in droves and that she refused “to be a part of this.”
Any search to replace Wise would be a sham, she told Peterson, because she strongly suspected Peterson was maneuvering to hire Kane in Wise’s place.
Peterson said by email he learned during a public board meeting that Meek had recorded him, when she asked on the dais if he preferred whether she cite a transcript of their conversation or play a recording.
"I did not anticipate that board directors would feel a need to record their conversations with other directors and not let them know they were being recorded," Peterson said.
Meek and Ray confirmed to Colorado Community Media they did not tell the board president or vice president they were being recorded during the Jan. 28 calls. Colorado is a one-party consent state, making the recordings legal.
Both said it was their first time recording a fellow board member.
Ray said he had to Google steps to record a call on his phone and wanted to, having been tipped off that the conversation with Williams would be about an ultimatum given to the superintendent.
“I wanted to make sure that I had a recording of what was said just for my own protection in terms of if we were asked to actually present in a litigated situation, I would have the details and the facts,” Ray said.
Meek said “trust just did not exist” after she heard the majority directors acted on a decision about Wise’s employment before speaking with all board members. She also said she distrusted Peterson because he has unilaterally acted without board authority before, she said. She wanted to protect herself from a “he-said, she-said situation.”
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, as the saying goes,” Meek said.