Allegations of Elected RE-2 Leaders Violating First Amendment Rights Escalates
If there was an award for the volume of lawsuits filed against a school district entity, the Woodland Park RE-2 board may just be in the running for a new record, with a trend that recently has averaged at least one major suit per week.
Within the last month or so the Woodland Park School District has faced a barrage of backlash in the form of legal action. Three new lawsuits against the district’s board of education have come forward this summer just before the majority of the board’s seats go up for re-election.
The incumbent board leaders and the superintendent, though, stand behind their actions, citing a desire to protect parental rights. They maintain the majority of district residents support the changes they have made since the elections of 2021, which resulted in a vastly different board of education and policies that have commanded much debate.
All three of the lawsuits this time around have to do with the district violating the First Amendment rights of parents, staff, and community members. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Colorado Department of Education have brought forth two of the suits that have to do with silencing staff and members of the community speaking up during board meetings.
Earlier this month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of former district employee Logan Ruths after he was banned from district property and events for making a brief statement during a board meeting. The lawsuit asked that the district remove Ruths’ ban for the property while the lawsuit made its way through court.
And then less than 24 hours after the ACLU filed the lawsuit, the school board released the order banning Ruths from district property. Therefore, he was able to attend the regularly scheduled school board meeting that took place this month.
Shortly after it was announced that Ruths’ ban was lifted, a different lawsuit was filed. This time, the Colorado Education Association (CEA) and the Woodland Park Education Association (WPEA) filed the lawsuit over new policies related to employees communicating with the public recently put in place by the school district.
The lawsuit also claims that the new policy violates the Colorado Open Meetings laws. District staff did not know of the policy until after it was implemented and there was no discussion about the issue at any board meeting.
Also at issue was the fact that the district enrolled all of its employees in the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE) which is a non-union professional educators’ association. The lawsuit claims that requiring employees to enroll in the association also violates their First Amendment Rights.
Gag orders Under Question
Last spring, the school district changed their policy of communication with the public by adding three paragraphs to the district policy that hasn’t changed since 1998. “No employee shall be interviewed by the media regarding school operations or student matters or offer a quote without the prior written consent of the superintendent,” the district’s new policy states. “No social media posts regarding district or school decisions will be made by employees of the school district in their capacity as employees without prior written consent of the district communications office. Violation of this policy will be considered to be insubordination.”
The CEA claims that it is unlawful to restrict speech on district employees’ personal social media pages. “Woodland Park educators work hard every day to ensure that their schools are welcoming places where their students can learn and thrive,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, high school counselor and President of the CEA. “And for their efforts they’ve been rewarded by their school district and board with a gag order, with removal of critical services for their students, and with constant disrespect for their professional expertise.”
She said that many of the actions made by the school board prevent teachers from creating an environment conducive to learning for their students. “If it seems that Woodland Park has been in the press an inordinate amount of times for such a small town, you can place the blame squarely on the WPSD and WPBE,” Baca-Oehlert said. “They are intent on politicizing all aspects of Woodland Park’s public education system, and will stop at nothing to demoralize their public school educators and negatively impact their students’ learning environments.”
The lawsuit that was filed in the U.S. District Court of Colorado is aimed to rectify the wrongs created by the new district polices. The lawsuit requests the court to remove the policy that punishes district staff for speaking out against actions made by the school board.
According to the press release issued by the CEA, they wish the court to “declare that Woodland Park School Districts’ employees have a constitutional right to make statements and social media posts about their employment as private citizens on matters of public concern.”
The lawsuit also wants the court to “declare that no employee who makes statements about their employment as private citizens on matters of public concern can be disciplined, terminated or retaliated against.”
The lawsuit also wants the court to state that it is unconstitutional to compel district staff to join PACE and prohibit the district from forcing staff to join the organization.
However, after the lawsuit came forward, Superintendent Ken Witt told local news station KRDO that the lawsuit was a “coordinated political attack by various actors and progressive groups.”
“I believe the employees who may have been concerned about the KDDA policy are those who have been historically conditioned to feel free to take private HR and student matters into the public using social media,” Witt said in a statement published by KRDO. “Whatever the court may decide in this case, the striking lack of professionalism and ethics on the part of those who are feigning to be offended is heartbreaking.”