Agreement Reached in Legal War Between WP School Administration and Teachers’ Union

Wording Changed in District-wide ‘Gag Order’ Policy; Both Sides Claim Victory

Trevor Phipps

Wording Changed in District-wide ‘Gag Order’ Policy; Both Sides Claim Victory

Trevor Phipps

To end the month of October, the Woodland Park RE-2 School District (WPSD) settled an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Woodland Park Education Association (WPEA).

This legal action generated a firestorm of media attention and even sparked a district-wide teacher protest effort and public meeting at the Ute Pass Cultural Center.

Just before the conclusion of a heated school board election, with six school board director candidates vying for office (see related election story), both sides in the lawsuit came to an agreement. The timing couldn’t have been better, according to school district officials and representatives of the education association.

The lawsuit came about in August after a new policy was enacted district-wide last February. The policy that many labeled as a district-wide “gag order” was put in place shortly after Superintendent Ken Witt was hired.

The district policy, known as KDDA, prohibits any employee from being interviewed by the media regarding “school operations or student matters.” In addition, teachers and even coaches couldn’t offer quotes without the prior written consent of the superintendent.

The policy also banned district employees from making social media posts regarding “district or school decisions without prior written consent of the district communications office.”

The policy stated that all information about the schools or district would be disseminated through the superintendent and the district’s central office. The media screening policy also stated that any violation of the KDDA directive would “be considered to be insubordination.”

The lawsuit filed by the WPEA in August alleged that the policy was unconstitutional and that it “chilled” the teachers’ First Amendment Right to free speech. The lawsuit also alleged that the way the new policy was enacted violated Colorado’s open meetings laws.

Once the issue made its way to court, a federal judge agreed that there could be some issues with the district’s policy. On Oct. 31, the two sides finally came to an agreement during a mediation in federal court.

In the end, the KDDA policy was re-written once again with language that both sides agreed upon in court. The language about talking to media and social media posts were removed as well as the part citing that violation of the policy would be considered insubordination.

“Additionally, while school district employees are free to express themselves in their private capacity, school district employees may not issue comments on behalf of a school or the district without authorization from the Superintendent,” the district’s KDDA policy now states.

After the news, both sides applauded the agreement and considered it a victory.

“This is a huge win for Woodland Park educators,” said Nate Owen, president of WPEA and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, according to Colorado Public Radio. “We’re overjoyed that teachers and other employees can finally speak on matters of public concern without fear of retaliation for simply exercising their right to free speech.”

Shortly after the decision was made, WPSD also issued a press release saying that the district “was delighted with the outcome reached.” “In what was a big win for teachers but a loss for the teacher’s union, we are also able to continue to provide free professional liability insurance to all of our teachers as a benefit, which the union tried to take away from our educators,” stated Superintendent Ken Witt. “And we are happy that the KDDA policy language changes preserve our ability to hold staff accountable for professional communications conduct while overcoming the union pretense that it infringes on free speech.”

As a part of the agreement, the WPEA president will have the chance to meet with the superintendent once a month. “Importantly, WPSD will maintain its position of not negotiating with the WPEA while agreeing that the WPEA president has a monthly opportunity to meet with Superintendent Witt as a mechanism to have WPEA concerns heard,” the WPSD press release stated.

The settlement came after a number of lawsuits were brought against WPSD just before the 2023 school board election that took place last week. Another lawsuit brought up against the district by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was settled earlier in October.

The ACLU brought a lawsuit against the district after former district employee and known critic of the school board, Logan Ruths, was banned from district property for a year after he made a brief remark expressing disagreement with anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric at a school board meeting.

But shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the district receded the property ban placed on Ruths. Therefore, the ACLU dropped its lawsuit.

The lawsuits came about after a number of controversial policies have been implemented by a new school board, elected in 2021, which touted itself as representing the conservative voice of the community and one that advocated parental choice more.

For the last two years, the district has been split among those who favor the current administration, along with the significant changes made, versus those who favor having better relations with the teachers and improving employee morale.

Tensions have been quite high for the last two years, with school board meetings packed with attendees. In addition, the political rift has increased, with the election of 2023 breaking all-time spending records for races held at the school board level.

According to current records, nearly $140,000 was raised collectively by the six candidates. No school board contest has ever showcased more signage than what occurred in the last few months, or generated this amount of spending.

The preliminary election results were announced on the evening of Nov. 7 (see related story).