(WOODLAND PARK, Colo.) — The Woodland Park school board unanimously voted to approve a controversial superintendent candidate during their meeting Wednesday night. Hundreds of community members who showed up, many in protest of this decision, were not allowed in.

Over an hour before the school board meeting started, around 5:00 p.m. on May 10, people started forming a line outside the Woodland Park School District Administration building. It was pouring rain, yet everyone stayed, many standing without umbrellas.

“I’ve been waiting out here since 5:00… My hands are frozen. I’m cold. I’ve been wet. I’ve been trying to share my umbrella with people who’ve been standing in the rain,” said Holly Sparks, a parent of a student in the district.

Parents and teachers showed up in protest. However, about 100 members of a religious group called Charis Bible College also showed up. Even though they didn’t necessarily have a connection to the school, they were exhorted by their leader Andrew Wommack, who said that the local community needed their support and that their values were at risk.

Parents like Matt Gawlowski, who have been regularly attending school board meetings, said they have never seen these people at a meeting before.

“This is insane, the most I’ve ever seen,” Gawlowski remarked about the line that began to snake down the sidewalk.

He and others suspected that this group had been mobilized to this meeting, “to pack that room, to pack the list of speakers and to drown us out… If you ask them if they have a student in the district, I don’t think you’re going to get a straight response. They’re going to say they’re concerned and they care about what’s going on.”

FOX21 spoke with multiple members in line from the Charis Bible College who all said they had no relation to the school district but that they were there to support the school board.

“I don’t really care what’s happening very much… I’m really advocating for peace and unity,” said Tanner Wride, a member of the Charis Bible College.

Around 5:30 p.m., chaos ensued when officials with the school board said they would not be letting anyone else in. Hundreds of angry people were left outside in the pouring rain.

A mob of people, both for and against the school board, clustered at the door of the District Administration building and began to yell at the school board officials to let them in. It got so heated that security called police to help them manage the pandemonium.

“We have every right to go into that meeting, into the school board meeting, and to be able to listen, to be able to participate, and they’re not letting us in… We’re showing up to show that we are concerned about a lot of the issues that are happening in the school,” said Bari Bell, a member of the Charis Bible College, who said she has no relation to any students or teachers in the district.

School board officials said that the room was at capacity, and that letting anyone else in would be a fire hazard.

“Usually they open up two overflow rooms… Tonight they have shut us totally out for no reason,” said Lorraine Merl, grandparent of a student in the school district, who said she has been attending school board meetings for over a year.

Officials with the board did not give a reason for why they did not open the overflow rooms. They said 94 people were in the meeting room which had a capacity of 90.

School board president, David Rusterholtz, began the meeting at 6:00 p.m., apologizing for not being able to bring in the people waiting outside: “We looked into moving into the auditorium, but the logistics of that would be we would have to cancel the meeting and have it another night.”

One protestor, Erin O’Connell, who is a parent of three students in the district, anticipated this and brought a microphone and speaker so that their voices could still be heard, through their own public comment, outside. Many people took the mic to relay their qualms about the school board and the new superintendent.

One of those people was Erin’s wife, Laura O’Connell, a former teacher who resigned as an employee from the district just three days prior, because of the actions of the school board.

“They [the school board members] don’t put kids first. He [Superintendent Ken Witt] says this is a business and that kids are products of a business… We all just want what’s best for kids and turning them into business products, is not it,” said O’Connell.

According to O’Connell, she is one of over 40% of Woodland Park School District staff that have already resigned or said they will not be returning next school year, because of the disapproval of the board and the new superintendent.

Since Witt was selected as an interim superintendent in December 2022, protests and uproar from parents and teachers have been common after they say drastic changes have been decided for the district without their input.

Parents and teachers specifically point to three changes:

  • A new social studies standard implemented this year called American Birthright
  • The decision to move the school district’s sixth grade from the middle school to the elementary school
  • The plan not to reapply for grants that covered the salaries of counselors and social workers

“These people should be ashamed of what they are doing here,” said Sparks, who will now be moving her child to the Manitou Springs School District, now that Witt has been instated full-time.

During the meeting, the board did hold a public comment, in which people’s names were drawn out of a basket. People that were standing outside were allowed to sign up to be a part of this pool, six of those were chosen. 

Before the five-member school board voted unanimously to renew Witt’s contract, each of the board members made a comment on the work he has done so far holding the interim position.

“We are going through some growing pains here at the school but I think it’s to a very good end that represents the parents in our community,” said Rusterholtz.

Following the vote, Witt thanked the board and said, “I believe we have the deep support of this community and I am honored to continue doing it.”

Parents and teachers that oppose the school board now have their eyes on the November election, where three board members are on the ballot. If voters decide to elect new board members, they will have the power to search for a new superintendent, if they choose.