Academy School District 20 has filed a motion to appeal a judge’s order in an ongoing lawsuit challenging its search last year for a new superintendent, district spokeswoman Allison Cortez said Wednesday.
El Paso County District Court Judge Thomas Kane ruled last month that D-20 parent and former teacher Melanie Knapp was entitled to receive the names and applications of superintendent candidates, which the district kept confidential except for the “sole finalist” for the job.
Knapp, who has questioned other procedures in Academy D-20, including fighting for board meeting agendas to have supplementary materials made public and board meetings to be videotaped instead of just audio recorded, said in an email she was pleased with the judge’s decision.
Such closed searches, which school districts and colleges have used for years, have raised questions about transparency.
“This ruling is an important step,” she said. “D-20 is seeking to appeal the order, but, in any event, there are still open meetings law questions in the complaint to be resolved before the District Court.”
What is known legally as an interlocutory appeal can be filed while other aspects of the case are still proceeding.
D-20, El Paso County’s largest school district, won’t comment on the pending litigation, Cortez said in a statement, adding, “We will issue a statement when the litigation is fully resolved.”
Knapp filed the lawsuit in November, after D-20 denied a request Knapp made through the Colorado Open Records Act to see materials from candidates who were being considered as top contenders.
Of 26 applicants, the board interviewed five before naming Kimberly Hough as its sole finalist in April 2019. Hough withdrew her application a few days before she was to be sworn in as superintendent. The board then named a second candidate, Tom Gregory, as superintendent in May 2019.
Kane ruled Knapp should be allowed to see the candidates’ records because of the “plain and ordinary meaning” of the term “finalist” under both open meetings and open records’ laws.
The district’s argument that the law allows just one finalist to be disclosed “does not make logical sense,” Kane said in issuing his decision.
Under the open records law, if there are three or fewer applicants with the minimum qualifications for the position, they should be considered finalists.
Reading the law to “permit the disclosure of only one finalist when more than three individuals meet the minimum qualifications” is inconsistent with state statute, Kane said.
The decision is in line with a similar case the Boulder Daily Camera filed last year in Denver District Court and won against the University of Colorado Board of Regents. That lawsuit involved the 2019 search process for a new CU-system president.
Boulder attorneys Eric Maxfield and Robert Gunning, who represented the Daily Camera, also are arguing Knapp’s case.
Kane ordered the information not be released for 28 days, to allow for a possible appeal, which D-20 is seeking.
Knapp also claims D-20’s board violated the state’s Sunshine Law, which pertains to open meetings of government decision-makers, by making hiring decisions in private and improperly convening closed-door executive sessions. The court has not yet ruled on those portions of the lawsuit.
The complaint requests the court order D-20 to show cause for withholding the information and provide recordings of 15 closed executive sessions held between Feb. 26, 2019, and May 9, 2019, to determine if they should be made public.
Knapp asked for and was denied the board’s executive session recordings “made during meetings before which decisions concerning the identities for the finalists were unknown and after which the identities of the finalists and later the successful candidates were determined,” according to the lawsuit.
“There is still another issue that is as important — transparency in public meetings,” Knapp said.
“I’m still in pursuit of Colorado Sunshine Law oversight for the long haul.”
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