DENVER – The Douglas County school board voted 4-3 Tuesday to hire Erin Kane as the next school district superintendent and hired additional attorneys to represent them as they consider fighting an open meetings lawsuit in which a judge has already ordered a preliminary injunction.
Kane is currently the executive director of schools for American Academy, and she previously served as the interim superintendent for the Douglas County School District from 2016 to 2018.
During her public interview with the board on March 3, Kane pledged to “execute the will of the board,” change the culture within the district, and said teachers should be “empowered to do what they do best.”
A nearly three-hour public comment preceded the vote after more than 100 community members signed up to speak.
"[Erin Kane's] record speaks for itself," said one community member. "We as a community need to think about making the kids in the district a top priority with a leader who can help them achieve academic excellence and have a bright future in a premier, sought-after district."
"Hiring Erin Kane will only further divide our community," said another.
Board member Becky Myers motioned to name Kane the sole finalist for the superintendent position. That motion was seconded by board vice president Christy Williams.
Board member David Ray then motioned to name Danny Winsor the sole finalist for the superintendent position. That motion was seconded by board member Elizabeth Hanson, but then defeated in a 3-4 vote.
Winsor is the executive director of schools for the Parker region of the Douglas County School District. Both Kane and Winsor participated in panel interviews and interviews with the board over the past month.
During the discussion, Ray recognized Kane's record but said Winsor would be a less divisive choice.
"We have such an opportunity tonight to do something pretty incredible and send a message to our community that we can come together, that we can rally behind a leader, but more importantly we can rally behind the symbolism that says this is a person we believe can pull us all together," Ray said. "...and it's not because Erin is not an exceptional leader, she is. But there's so many unfortunate circumstances surrounding her candidacy."
Board member Susan Meek agreed, saying Winsor would be a better candidate to build back trust between the board and with the community.
Board member Kaylee Winegar, who spoke via Zoom after giving birth several hours before the meeting, agreed Winsor was a great candidate but voiced her support of Kane.
"I think they both have heart... however, one was more confident, courageous and not afraid to challenge the narrative," said Winegar. "While we can't go wrong with Danny, I will be voting for Erin."
Board president Mike Peterson said he would trust both Winsor and Kane as superintendent, but voted for Kane.
"I see someone in Erin Kane that can not only represent teacher voice and give them a voice in the district and honor that voice but also be firm," Peterson said. "I also see someone who respects the role of the parent in that relationship, that will honor the teachers, that will insist parents treat teachers respectfully but will also understand that the parent has the primary role in the raising of their child, whether it is health decisions, whether it's decisions around curriculum, what to opt-in to, what to opt-out of."
Myers, Peterson, Williams and Winegar voted to approve the motion to name Kane the sole finalist, while Hanson, Meek and Ray voted no.
Following the vote, Kane was brought in via Zoom and allowed to speak. She began by thanking the board and Danny Winsor, then addressed the conflict in the district — which was highlighted throughout the meeting in both public comment and during the board's discussion.
"I know there is so much conflict in our district, and I will commit myself to work with all seven board directors and to make sure that I represent all seven board directors in the work that I do as I follow the board's direction," said Kane. "We can't change the conflict that's in our world or in our country, but I think we can work right here in Douglas County if we all work together to listen to each other, understand each other's concerns, and I would be privileged to lead bridging that divide."
Kane said during her public interview that though she is a Republican, she did not see a role for political parties in leading a school district.
“I want to hear every good idea. I want to listen and not put a political lens on any of it,” Kane said. “…I am happy to engage with and talk to anyone. I enjoy talking to people who may disagree with me or think they disagree. I just need to be really solution oriented and want what’s best for the kids.”
She said she supported a potential mill levy override this year, but with clear purpose, transparency and communication about what is at stake for voters. She said the measure would have to be focused and that she supported a focus on teacher and staff compensation and new building, as a new neighborhood school hasn’t been built in the district since 2011, she said.
She rounded out her answers to questions from the board directors during the March 3 public interview by saying a pay structure would be incredibly important to put in place because “teachers need something they can see and rely on as they come into this district.”
Some members of the board majority had spoken with Kane even before they fired former Superintendent Corey Wise without cause in a meeting on Feb. 4 – conversations that came to light before Wise was even terminated.
Kane confirmed in a statement to American Academy families on Feb. 17 that Peterson had asked her to consider the superintendent position. More details surfaced on Feb. 22, when the Douglas County News-Press broke the story about conversations regarding the majority board members discussing firing Wise. The story also detailed how Kane sent a text message to Wise with language of his contract while Wise was speaking with some of the minority board members.
Attorneys representing Wise filed a wide-ranging open records request on Feb. 18 for all records, emails and digital communications surrounding Wise’s firing and other communications and decisions involving the district and wise. The attorneys also gave notice to the district to preserve evidence related to Wise’s firing.
Another item the board addressed during Tuesday’s meeting was whether to move forward with an appeal of a judge’s ruling on an open meetings violation lawsuit after the board tabled discussion on the matter in a meeting on March 11.
Earlier this month, Douglas County District Court Judge Jeffrey K. Holmes granted a preliminary injunction against the board and the four named defendants — Peterson, Vice President Christy Williams, Becky Myers, and Kaylee Winegar — that requires them to follow the Colorado Open Meetings Law, and not to talk about public business or take any formal actions by three or more board members as a group or through a series of meetings unless those meetings are open to the public.
The March 11 special meeting to discuss whether to appeal the ruling while the rest of the case proceeds went back and forth between the majority board members, the minority of the board, and special counsel representing the district in the lawsuit.
But after lawyers said they had found there was more time to prepare a possible appeal, the board decided to table the discussion until Tuesday’s meeting.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted 4-3 to retain Gessler Blue LLC, a law firm including Scott Gessler, to represent both the school board and the plaintiffs in the suit – Peterson, Myers, Winegar and Williams – moving forward at a cost that is less than what the firm would typically charge. The law firm Hall and Evans LLC currently represents the school board and the individually named majority board members in the lawsuit.
During the discussion, Peterson said additional counsel was needed due to the "unclear" preliminary injunction and because there is "a larger case here."
"I personally have gone and said that I do not believe that we violated any Colorado open meeting laws and that's the larger question here," Peterson said. "My fear is if this case moves forward and we don't have competent legal representation and variegated, diverse opinions on what the impact could be, that this could create new Colorado law that would not only affect this district..."
Peterson said the firm would only be brought in for the case and to bring additional perspective. He also said he assumes attorneys at both Hall and Evans and Gessler Blue would coordinate to determine who was handling a particular issue within the legal process to avoid double billing.
Ray said the school board needs to focus on Douglas County instead of the impact the injunction may have on other districts, while Meek called the retention of additional counsel frivolous.
During public comment and the board's discussion, the use of district money for the additional counsel and a possible appeal was questioned. Winegar said the plaintiff should be to blame for "wasting district money."
The board then voted 4-3 to approve a resolution to direct its counsel to ask for a time extension on reconsidering the judge’s order, or clarification of the order. The board did amend the resolution to also instruct counsel to evaluate the appropriateness of a consent decree.
To watch the full meeting, click here.