Court Fights Continue Over Operations of Woodland Park School Board

District Vows to Take Latest Decision to Colorado Court of Appeals

Trevor Phipps

Ever since new Woodland Park school board members were elected in Nov. 2021, a big community war has ignited between those who support the new panel of elected leaders, opting for making major changes regarding such issues as parental rights; and those who have fought many of their decisions, waving the flag of more transparency.

During the last school year, a number of citizens launched a massive effort against the school board in the form of lawsuits and an unsuccessful election recall. Although the recall fell short, the group succeeded in garnering many signatures and capturing much attention in the local and regional media.

District Court Judge Scott Sells ruled in the favor of parent Erin O’Connell last year saying that the RE-2 District Board violated Colorado Open Meeting Laws when it discussed a memorandum of understanding with a charter school under a vague “BOARD HOUSEKEEPING” agenda item. The judge, though, in a more cautionary note,  concluded that the board had later made up for its lack of transparency.

These legal disputes over transparency and making decisions in open meetings are flaring up again. And based on recent developments, the gap is growing between critics of the board and school officials.

 In March, O’Connell,  who recently was voted as the “Best Political Troublemaker” by the readers of TMJ News, was back in court fighting against the board. O’Connell’s purpose was to get the school district to provide surveillance camera footage from the night of Dec. 19, 2022, taken by certain cameras located in the central office lobby, an area known as the “commons,” a hallway and the high school auditorium. The footage supposedly showed three unnamed board members meeting with Interim Superintendent Ken Witt, when he was still just a candidate for the position.

The district initially argued that O’Connell’s request for about an hour and a half of footage was not specific enough. The school district’s attorney Bryce Carlson also argued that the footage requested by O’Connell brought about safety issues as it “is highly sensitive in the wrong hands. For example, knowing which entrances and exits are covered by security cameras and which are not would be incredibly useful to someone planning an attack… While Plaintiff (O’Connell) may not be planning a physical attack, she is not immune from the exceptions under CORA.”

The judge however, disagreed with the district and ordered that the footage be released to O’Connell. He also had some tough words for the way the board handles transparency issues.

 “I find it somewhat troubling, based on the history of this case between Ms. O’Connell and the school board, that the school (district) would say we’ve got three board members and a superintendent (candidate) on tape but we’re not going to turn it over to you and we’ve got nothing to hide,” Sells said. “I find that somewhat troubling, the lack of transparency by the school board and the school district. This was on the night of a school board meeting with three board members and the superintendent applicant walking down a hall that they know is recorded on video. An argument that this impacts security or the safety of the school is not credible to me.”

School Security At Risk

This decision outraged school district officials.

Last week, the Woodland Park School District issued a strongly-worded press release, stating that they planned to appeal the district court’s ruling and bring the matter before the Colorado Court of Appeals. On Thursday, the Appeals Court granted the district’s request to stay or suspend the court’s order, while it went through the appeals process.

“The Woodland Park School District is disappointed with the recent lower court ruling to release passive video surveillance in response to a request made under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA),” stated district officials. “The district will appeal this ruling as it puts our students and teachers at risk and could potentially lead to harassment of our staff and students’ families. Attorney for the district, Bryce Carlson, declared that ‘video coverage is highly sensitive information, and if it falls into the wrong hands, it could threaten student and district staff safety.’”

In a rare detailed fashion regarding a court ruling, the district, in their press release, blasted Sells’ stand on this issue, claiming that  if passive video surveillance were subject to disclosure under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), “it could be used to stalk or harass anyone in any public facility, including public employees, clients, students, and their families.”

Moreover, school officials say that releasing video footage could become a major burden on the district or other public entities if they had to disclose large amounts of footage in response to frequent requests.

“This ruling calls into question the privacy of anyone present in a government facility with passive surveillance, which is just about every government facility or public space,” Board Vice President David Illingworth said. “Under Judge Sells’ ruling, for instance, the Aquatic Center could be forced to disclose surveillance to anyone interested in seeing their favorite swimmer’s latest bathing suit, or what time their ex-spouse leaves work every day.”

The district’s interim superintendent Ken Witt agreed with Illingworth and the decision to appeal the district court’s order. “Woodland Park School District will challenge this misinterpretation of CORA for the safety of our students, schools, staff, and families,” Witt said.