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Cortez school board discusses new policies and BOCES; hears from Moreland

At their Tuesday meeting, former principal Emily Moreland addressed the Board. (Zoom Screen Capture)
Cortez school board meeting lasts nearly five hours

During a regularly scheduled meeting punctuated by comments from a former principal, the Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 Board of Education on Tuesday discussed its future with San Juan BOCES, new school policies and District Accountability Committee bylaws. The meeting ran for nearly five hours.

Executive session: What to do about BOCES?

The meeting kicked off with an executive session that lasted about an hour to discuss the district’s future with the San Juan BOCES, a topic also discussed in board meetings in Dolores and Mancos.

Durango schools pulled out of BOCES last year. BOCES exists to help advocate for and support special-needs students in the area’s schools, while also helping schools receive qualified and equipped special education staffing.

If Cortez left BOCES, the district would be responsible for finding its own special education staff. The board did not announce whether it had made a decision.

Celebration reports

In celebration reports, Sherri Wright spoke of the community support at a fundraiser for board President Sheri Noyes and her husband, Rick Noyes, who is battling brain cancer.

“Thank you to everyone who supported us,” Noyes said on Zoom. “There’s no words for something of that magnitude.”

The board also spoke of their excitement about upgrades to the high school gym, which is nearing completion, thanks to the grant given by the LOR Foundation.

Superintendent gives update on classes

Superintendent Tom Burris said the district has an agreement of services with BOCES for the 2023-2024 school year and recently had a meeting to discuss staffing. They offered the position of executive director of exceptional student services to Lisa Megal, who holds an administrative license and school psychology degree.

Class schedules will change in the high school to a seven-period day. “This would give us more flexibility and allow our students to make up classes they may have failed,” Burris said.

Later on in the meeting, it was revealed that a new policy will assign a student to a grade in the high school based on credits instead of age.

They also hope to create credit recovery classes and keep all classes on the smaller side.

Danielle Brafford will be the new director of finance and will be trained by Melissa Brunner. Jennifer Boniface was hired as the new principal for the high school, replacing Emily Moreland.

Burris also said the board will receive training in “different elements of school improvement” and will host a “data day” Aug. 3 with Northrop Analytics’ Christian Northrop. Northrop will work with principals and teachers in the school.

Preliminary budget approved

The preliminary budget for the 2023-2024 school year was approved by the board during action items, but was discussed during the interim finance director’s report.

The budget totals $43.52 million.

Assistant superintendent report

Assistant Superintendent Eddie Ramirez spoke of the new director of finance and accounting coordinator, saying they were tasked with “meeting the day-to-day financial demands and to ensure efficiency and accuracy of all transactions in payroll, accounting and state reporting.”

He also said that department is updating the business handbook to more accurately outline processes and prioritize transparency and accountability.

The district school safety team met to discuss the 2023-2024 training dates for fire drills and other safety activities, as well as creating training that focuses “on being proactive before an emergency occurs by focusing on warning signs.”

Wright pointed out that faking a bomb threat or any other dangerous school threat is now a felony, and students “who want to just get out of a test” should be informed of the consequences.

Ramirez also gave an update on modular classrooms, saying they will be delivered to Kemper, Mesa and Lewis-Arriola elementary schools before the end of the summer.

Summer school

The board discussed the summer school program, saying they are working on aligning district systems, goals for lesson planning and curriculum mapping to prepare for the upcoming school year.

Citizens address the board

Dale Henderson, a member of the District Accountability Committee, told the board about recent DAC achievements, including a family engagement survey, and asked the board to approve DAC bylaws, which have been in discussion for a few months now.

Former Assistant Principal Lauren White also addressed the board, speaking about her decision to resign in April instead of finishing out her contract.

“I could no longer stand to work for a district that does not value their employees,” she said. “I was never made to feel that my experience, my voice and my expertise did not matter or was not valued by my superiors until I started working in this district.”

“Leaders should strive to value and appreciate the individual experience and perspective of all their staff,” she added.

White, who has a background in special education, urged the board to “rethink their decision” to leave BOCES. She also suggested that they needed to be “transparent” with the plan in place to support special-ed students.

Former high school Principal Emily Moreland also addressed the board, speaking about the high rate of turnover in the high school, and the challenges she saw teachers face as they did their jobs in the district.

“In my three years in the district, I worked under three superintendents,” she said. “I myself was your third high school principal in 12 months.”

She said the lack of retention caused teachers to be suspicious of anyone new, keeping their class doors closed because they knew it would most likely change again soon.

Moreland told the board it would take more than money to incentivize teachers to stay in the district.

“Ask anyone in our district if money is their only motivator. … They will tell you they stay for the kids,” she said.

She said the board and district leadership must be willing to solicit change.

“We must view ourselves first and foremost as servants. Our role is to facilitate change by building an environment where they feel confident to be successful,” she said. “No one can be successful in an environment where they feel unsupported, disrespected and undervalued.”

A woman who identified herself as Lynette said she had been watching the recent board meetings, and was upset about “attacks” she had seen on the board and superintendent.

“I’ve seen them bash the superintendent, bash you with their scripted … if we would put as much heart and soul into our kids’ education, their academic success, they’d be first in the state right now,” she said.

She said people needed to “stop playing the victim” and stop blaming others for their mistakes.

“We need to drop our agendas, we need to stop bashing the superintendent, we need to stop bashing the board, we need to stop bashing each other,” she said. “We need to come together as a team, because if we did that, our kids would be first in the nation.”

She also spoke of The Journal’s recent coverage about low morale at Montezuma-Cortez High School. The Journal reported that in a survey circulated among students and staff, terms used to describe staff or district culture included “antagonistic,” “divided,” “cynical,” “negative” and “fearful.”

“We don’t need the paper in our schools asking about surveys on our children,” she said. “Those are our children.”

Other items

The board had many discussion items and action items to talk through and approve, including approving the DAC bylaws, which passed 3-2 after Wright abstained her vote because of a tie. The bylaws were approved with the stipulations that the DAC change its minimum membership and have one-year term limits for members.

The board also passed the Pleasant View charter resolution.

The next school board meeting is July 18 at 6 p.m.