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Woodland Park School District faces another lawsuit

woodland park
Posted at 11:21 AM, Aug 12, 2023

WOODLAND PARK-- — Another lawsuit has been filed against the Woodland Park School District. The president of the Woodland Park Education Association claims the district is violating employees freedom of speech and association rights.

The lawsuit claims the district violated employees first amendment rights when they changed their Media Relations Policy in February.

According to the President of The Colorado Education Association, Amie Baca-Oehlert, the association agrees with the lawsuit claims. Baca-Oehlert said rights were violated when employees were not notified right away of the media policy change.

“The School District implemented a policy, telling educators that they were not allowed as private citizens to talk about their working conditions to post things on social media,” Baca-Oehlert said.

According to the lawsuit,

“Prior to February 23, 2023, KDDA policy read as follows:

It is important that information about the activities and problems of the schools be provided to the community in a way that will create and maintain a dignified and professionally responsible image for the school district.

Therefore, the procedures listed below shall be followed in giving official
information to the news media:

1. The superintendent shall be the official spokesperson for the district.

2. News releases, which are of a district-wide nature or pertain to established

district policy shall be the responsibility of the superintendent.

3. The superintendent has established regulations for the dissemination of

news releases pertaining to individual schools and athletics.”

The district changed the Media Relations Policy (KDDA) on February 23, 2023. It kept the existing three rules and added three more.

  • “No employee shall be interviewed by the media regarding school operations or student matters or offer quote without the prior written consent of the superintendent.
  • No social media posts regarding district or school decisions will be made by employees of the school district without prior written consent of the district communications office.
  • Violation of this policy will be considered to be insubordination.”

According to the lawsuit district employees were not made aware of the change until March. In March the policy was changed again to add, “in their capacity as employees.”
According to the Woodland Park School District’s website, the media regulations policy (KDDA Press Releases Conferences and Interviews) was changed on March 7, 2023. The current policy is below.

“It is important that information about the activities and problems of the schools be provided to the community in a way that will create and maintain a dignified and professionally responsible image for the school district.

Therefore, the procedures listed below shall be followed in giving official information to the news

Media:

  1. The superintendent shall be the official spokesperson for the district.
  2. News releases, which are of a district-wide nature or pertain to established district policy shall be the responsibility of the superintendent.
  3. No employee shall be interviewed by the media regarding school operations or student matters or offer quote without the prior written consent of the superintendent.
  4. 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.
  5. The superintendent has established regulations for the dissemination of news releases pertaining to individual schools and athletics.
  6. Violation of this policy will be considered to be insubordination.

Adopted: 1988
Revised: 08/91, 08/96, 09/98, 02/23, 03/07/23.”

The lawsuit claims that rules listed in the policy are a free speech violation, and that the district did not follow proper protocol for changing it. According to the lawsuit, the district failed to follow proper procedures when they changed this policy because it was not discussed in a school board meeting.

“When limits are placed on what people can say and when and where, and how that is a violation of the very first amendment rights,” Baca-Oehler said.

The lawsuit is also claiming freedom of association is being violated. In May the district announced that it would be providing district staff with professional liability insurance through a PACE membership. PACE is the Professional Association of Colorado Educators. The lawsuit said the district did not allow staff to opt out.

“When they are being forced to be a part of an organization that they may not want to be, that's it, a violation of their freedom of association,” Baca-Oehler said.

The lawsuit states, “members do not want to be forced to join PACE because they do not agree with PACE as an organization, its goals, its political beliefs, its messaging, or its purpose nor do they want to receive its propaganda.”

The superintendent of Woodland Park School District, Ken Witt made a statement on Friday addressing the lawsuit. In the statement he calls the lawsuit a coordinated political attack that has cost the district thousands of dollars and required a full time position to address. He called it an attempt to "intimidate and to wear out the district simply due to its recent pivot to parent and student friendly policies and practices."

In addition, Witt also stated, "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.”

Baca-Oehler said one goal of the lawsuit is to allow district employees to speak freely about their views and worker conditions.

“So our hope is that this is a resolution, and that educators will be able to focus on what they do best educating students at Woodland Park,” Baca-Oehler said.
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