Lawsuit targets school board’s naming of one superintendent finalist and denial of application records

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

A Colorado Springs school board circumvented the state’s transparency laws in hiring its superintendent, a parent alleges in a lawsuit that raises issues like those in another recent legal challenge that seeks the names and records of all finalists for the job of University of Colorado president.

Melanie Knapp sued the Academy District 20 school board in El Paso County District Court late last week, claiming it violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law by making hiring decisions behind closed doors and failing to properly convene executive sessions.

The suit also says the district wrongfully withheld the names and applications of superintendent finalists from Knapp, who requested them under the Colorado Open Records Act.

Melanie Knapp

“Such practice is inconsistent with the plain requirements of CORA and the OML (open meetings law), which require disclosure of the final group of qualified candidates in order for the public to observe, and possibly participate in the vetting process,” her complaint states.

Knapp is represented by Eric Maxfield and Robert Gunning, the Boulder attorneys helping the Boulder Daily Camera with its Sept. 30 suit against the CU regents for withholding the applications of other finalists considered during the process that led to the hiring of Mark Kennedy as university president.

Both lawsuits focus on the naming of a sole finalist for a top executive position, a practice among some public universities and school districts in Colorado that appears to conflict with the requirements of state open-government laws.     

The open meetings law, aka the Sunshine Law, requires public bodies to make public “the list of all finalists” under consideration for a chief executive officer position at least 14 days before an appointment is made. CORA requires the disclosure of finalists’ applications, except for letters of reference and medical data, and it defines “finalist” to mean an applicant for a chief executive officer position “who is a member of the final group of applicants or candidates” made public under the Sunshine Law.

If only three or fewer applicants possess the minimum qualifications for the position, they should be considered finalists, according to CORA.

The laws’ plain language contemplates more than one “finalist,” Knapp’s lawsuit contends. “The reasonable inference here is that the legislature intended for the public to be apprised of the identity of the group of finalists and to have an opportunity to weigh in before appointment.”

In April, the Academy 20 board named Kimberly Hough as the lone finalist for the superintendent’s position, but then she “respectfully withdrew” her name from consideration for the job. The board then named another sole finalist, Thomas Gregory, who accepted the position.

Knapp made unsuccessful CORA requests for the names and applications of other candidates under serious consideration. She also requested the recordings of executive sessions during which, her lawsuit says, the board presumably narrowed the applicant pool to the respective sole finalists. The open meetings law prohibits decision-making in closed-door meetings.

The lawsuit also alleges the board did not properly convene some executive sessions where privileged attorney-client matters were discussed. The open meetings law requires public bodies to cite a specific statutory provision authorizing each executive session and to announce the topic “in as much detail as possible.”

Knapp is asking a judge to order the disclosure of the names of all finalists, the finalists’ applications and the recordings of “unjustified” executive sessions. She also wants an order declaring that the school board improperly convened closed-door meetings on numerous occasions from February to May 2019.

Asked about the lawsuit, Academy 20 spokeswoman Allison Cortez provided a statement from school board president Tracey Johnson: “Thank you for the opportunity to comment. However, due to pending litigation, we have been advised not to provide any further comment.”

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