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Durango School District to fight lawsuit alleging violation in board seat vacancy

Plaintiffs seek a special election, but 9-R says it followed guidelines
The Durango School District 9-R Board of Education said in a written statement Friday that it will defend itself against a lawsuit filed by four community members in connection with the District D school board race. The lawsuit could cost the district up to $30,000, according to the school distirct. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Durango School District 9-R says it isn’t backing down from a lawsuit filed by four community members accusing the district of failing to follow guidelines in filling a vacant seat on the Board of Education.

In a statement released Friday, the school district said, “After consulting with our legal counsel, the board and superintendent have decided it is in the best interest of the district to defend our actions in this case.”

The lawsuit alleges that the school board failed to declare a vacancy in a timely manner after board director Andrea Parmenter vacated her seat; the lawsuit says the board illegally canceled the District D election and appointed a board member to that seat instead.

The lawsuit also alleges that Parmenter, who was not named as a defendant, had moved out of District D in May, concealed her move from the public for months while she continued to illegally serve as school board director, and did not declare her move until it was too late for District D residents to run as candidates.

Parmenter and the board’s actions collectively prevented voters from selecting a District D representative, the lawsuit alleges.

The district’s statement says the school district “acted appropriately,” and goes on to predict the lawsuit could cost the district up to $30,000.

District spokeswoman Julie Popp said the school board followed Colorado law in appointing Katie Stewart to the vacant District D seat in September, because Parmenter left the seat within 90 days of an election.

Parmenter notified the school district about her change of address in August, Popp said. Parmenter ran in District E, where she moved to, and won re-election in November.

The district’s statement also contends that District D was headed for an election before Parmenter vacated her seat, that the district accepted petition signatures from prospective candidates who wanted to be on the ballot and that Stewart was the only person to submit petition signatures.

Stewart, being the only person to return a petition and candidate documents for the District D race, would have run uncontested and won. The board recognized that and it “weighed heavily” on the board’s decision to go ahead and appoint Stewart, according to the board’s statement.

“Not only are we confident we acted appropriately, we know holding an election in District D would not have changed the outcome,” the statement says.

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs, Christina McMunn, Cam Formby, and Cathy and Stanley Patterson, are requesting Durango School District 9-R hold a special election for District D.

The board’s statement released Friday said a special election could cost the school district $50,000 to $55,000, in addition to the potential $30,000 for the lawsuit.

The board is against holding a special election for two reasons: No. 1, candidates were not prevented from running in the District D election even though only one person, Stewart, carried through with it; No. 2, the school district is opposed to holding a special election because of the costs associated with it.

The statement says the school board’s attorneys have “filed a motion asserting that a special election is not an available remedy in this case.”

“We are committed to defending ourselves against these accusations, but are frustrated to be diverting financial and human resources away from students,” the statement said.

Formby, one of the four plaintiffs, said the board wasn’t considering the possibility that Parmenter had vacated her district as early as May.

“I think that their statement shows lack of responsibility on their part,” she said.

Formby added that she thinks the board’s statement about how much the lawsuit and a special election could cost the school district are undermining its case. She described the board’s statements about costs as an “emotional appeal about how much money it’s going to cost the district and take away from the kids.”

Plaintiff Cathy Patterson also said the school board didn’t address the possibility that the District D seat was vacated as early as May.

“The way they handled the situation is really upsetting,” she said. “To me, the community should have been allowed to vote. Instead, they were denied their legal right to vote.”

Patterson said the community’s taxpayer money is being used to pay the school board’s attorneys.

“Everybody should have been able to have a vote and a say,” she said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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