Woodland Park’s teachers union is suing the local school district and Board of Education, alleging employees’ First Amendment rights were violated by a policy adopted earlier this year that prohibits educators from speaking to the press or posting on social media about district decisions without consent.
The Woodland Park Education Association also plans to seek a preliminary injunction to block the policy, according to the lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Denver.
“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 (district) and (the board),” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, in a statement. “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 Colorado Education Association, the statewide teachers union, said in a news release that because of the Woodland Park School District’s policy, the president of the local union was unable to speak publicly about the lawsuit “due to credible fear of retaliation or termination.”
Woodland Park Superintendent Ken Witt said the lawsuit “feels like a coordinated political attack by various actors and progressive groups such as the ACLU, civil rights attorneys and the teachers union, all of whom are attempting to intimidate and to wear out the district simply due to its recent pivot to parent- and student-friendly policies and practices.
“I believe the employees who may have been concerned about the… policy are those who have been historically conditioned to feel free to take private HR and student matters into the public using social media,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Woodland Park has drawn national attention after a conservative majority gained control of the school board, hired a new superintendent and adopted a social studies standard — called American Birthright — that was created by a right-wing advocacy group.
Witt said the lawsuit “appears to come from an onslaught of several hundred CORA requests by local (Colorado Education Association) surrogates.” The district has spent tens of thousands of dollars to respond to the public records, which were requested under the Colorado Open Records Act, he said.
“The documents produced have amounted to findings that the board and administration are actually doing what they promised; to de-politicize education and to refocus on academics instead of ideologies,” Witt said.
The district, located in Teller County northwest of Colorado Springs, has about 1,800 students, 130 classroom teachers and roughly 166 other staff, according to the lawsuit.
The district’s policy change led to about a 35% turnover in teachers during the 2022-23 academic year, which is unusual for Woodland Park, where staff tend to stay long-term, Baca-Oehlert said in an interview.
“It certainly has had a chilling effect on many of the educators,” she said.
In February, the school board changed a district policy on how employees communicate with news media to say that no staff members are allowed to be interviewed by journalists about school or student matters unless they have written consent from the superintendent, according to the lawsuit.
Another change to the policy also states that employees aren’t allowed to post on social media about district or school decisions without consent from Woodland’s district communications office. Any violation of the policy is considered “insubordination,” according to the lawsuit.
The union also alleged the district violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law, which says meetings involving at least three members of a school board must take place in public and that public business “may not be conducted in secret,” the lawsuit alleged.
There is no public record of a meeting where board members publicly addressed the policy changes and it’s unclear whether directors or the superintendent were the ones to make the revisions, according to the lawsuit.
An additional change was made to the policy in March — also not discussed publicly at a school board meeting — to state that educators “in their capacity as employees” cannot post on social media about district matters, according to the lawsuit.
The school district announced in May that it would provide all school-based staff professional liability insurance through membership in the Professional Association of Colorado Educators, or PACE, according to the lawsuit, which notes the membership is not optional.
The lawsuit alleges PACE is an “anti-union” organization and that members of the teachers union don’t want to join because they do not agree with the organization’s goals and beliefs.
State law prohibits school districts from requiring teachers to become a member of any group or organization, according to the lawsuit.
The teachers union is requesting that a court prevent the district from forcing employees to become members of PACE.