Harry Tom Burris and Ember Conley were named as the two finalists for interim superintendent by the Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 Board of Education in a special meeting Tuesday, Feb. 15.
The interim superintendent will fulfill the duties of Superintendent Risha VanderWey, who resigned in January after receiving low marks on the board’s evaluation after less than seven months on the job.
Both candidates have experience as superintendents, and both have held roles in the Montezuma-Cortez district.
There were four applicants, and the decision was “tough,” Board Director Sherri Wright said in Tuesday’s meeting.
After meeting in executive session to discuss the applications, the board narrowed its search to the two who had superintendent experience, Board of Education President Sheri Noyes said.
“We were very pleased to see some of our own people in our district put themselves out there and show their passion for our district,” she said at the meeting.
Other board members followed suit with praise of the internal applicants.
Conley views the opportunity to serve as interim superintendent an “act of service” to give back to the community where her roots lie, she told The Journal.
Returning to Cortez after college, she found her life’s passion coaching the high school band flag team.
She obtained her teaching certificate and eventually became principal of Montezuma-Cortez High School.
Conley’s adopted son, Delynger, was born in Cortez, but she left because it was “time to give him a fresh start.”
That decision paved the way for superintendent roles in Mesa Public School District in Arizona and Park City School District in Utah, as well as an interim superintendent position in Maricopa Unified School District.
The role of interim superintendent differs greatly from that of the superintendent, Conley said.
Interim superintendents “boost moral,” make any necessary change while in the midst of a budget, “keep calm in the district” and support the school board and community – a role she’s prepared to take on, she said.
And, she said, she understands the culture of the area and “meeting every single individual student where they are.”
“I was really intrigued with the relation we had with out Ute Mountain Ute students,” she said of her time in Cortez schools.
She hopes to serve as a role model for students who may be interested in gaining experience elsewhere to “come back and serve your community,” she said.
Conley resigned from her superintendent role in Mesa schools in 2019, after being placed on paid administrative leave, and addressed the circumstances of her departure in a 14-minute YouTube video on March 6, 2020. She received substantial media coverage in the Phoenix area and faced accusations of wrongful spending involving unauthorized pay raises to her executive team.
The Mesa school district conducted an audit, which reported the school board had not approved compensation for 10 members of the superintendent’s executive team.
In her YouTube statement, Conley denied wrongdoing and called reports claiming otherwise “false and misleading.”
In the video, she said there was originally no salary schedule in place for senior administrators, and that among expansion of her team, budgets were brought before board members and kept neutral and compliant.
She also discussed district achievements under her leadership, including improved academic performance, recruitment of 20 “much-needed” teachers and increase of the high school graduation rate from 76% to 82%.
Addressing the allegations with The Journal, Conley attributed much of the accusations to personal issues with a former board member who was not reelected and “went after me and my family,” she said.
“After all of it that came out, the governing board had to come up with some reason of why things happened,” she said.
“That whole thing about overpayment of administrators, there was no way as a superintendent that you can do that,” she said. “So there had been a whole study around salary schedules for administrators during my tenure that I started. And at that point, to be really honest, I had had some health concerns and was the primary caretaker of my mom, my dad had died. I needed to come home. So we did.”
Afterward, she asked herself, “What am I most passionate about?”
That question manifested into three websites:www.emberconley.net, www.emberconley.us, and www.emberconley.org, in which she has written about parenting, the opioid crisis and women in leadership, with some of her articles appearing in national magazines.
Conley currently does educational consulting and is the host of show “Political Peeks” on Utah station Park City Television, which has been “a total blast,” she said.
Her family is “over the top” about her potential move, and she’s excited to reconnect with Cortez family and friends. For instance, her son’s half-brother lives here, and her daughter Smoki’s family lives in Cortez.
She has a close blended family with her husband, she said, featuring his children Katarina and Ally.
Previously serving as the superintendent of two New Mexico school districts, Burris has spent the past two years in retirement.
However, he said he’s ready to serve the Montezuma-Cortez school district.
“The best years of my career were spent in Cortez,” Burris told The Journal.
In Cortez, he was the assistant principal, and later principal, of Cortez Middle School, before becoming the business manager and human resources director for the district.
“I think I’d have a wonderful time at it,” Burris said. “It’s a great school district, it’s a wonderful school district. It’s in a wonderful part of the state.”
And, he said, he values the district’s collaboration with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
He fondly recalled developing relationships with Tribal Chairman Manuel Hart, Councilor Selwyn Whiteskunk, and Tina King Washington, education director for the tribe, during his time in the district.
He’s “anxious to reconnect,” he said.
He describes his educational style as “old-school, brick and mortar.”
He’s not a fan of online learning, instead favoring interactive, hands-on instruction.
Burris is passionate about addressing disciplinary issues in positive and productive ways. One year in administration at Cortez Middle School, he said, about 3,000 discipline referrals crossed his desk.
Middle school is a period of “dramatic change” for students, he said, and in his time in education he “came to understand the kids” and connect with them.
“I’ve never sent a kid back to class (after they were sent to the office),” he said.
They don’t learn that way, he said.
“Let your teachers do what they do best,” he said.
He said that “there’s a lot of stuff happening” in the district. In his letter of interest, he wrote that he would bring a “team collaborative approach” and prioritize “providing a well-rounded, appropriate education for the students to allow them to become happy, productive citizens.”
“The focus of education ought to be on education,” he said in his interview with The Journal.
He noted that not all children are college-bound, and he wants to cater to them too, referencing his experience teaching at Career Prep Alternative School in Shiprock.
Burris most recently served as superintendent of Roswell Independent School District in New Mexico, which has about 10,500 students.
He touched upon a few key accomplishments there, including balancing a budget that soared to over $100 million one year and reducing staff shortages from 65 openings by about 40 positions.
Career (from most recent to oldest): Roswell Independent School District superintendent, Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools superintendent, Montezuma-Cortez School District business manager and human resources director, Cortez Middle School principal, Cortez Middle School assistant principal, Koogler Middle School principal, Career Prep Alternative School principal, Kirtland Central High School assistant principal, Kirtland Central High School math teacher, San Juan College welding and math teacher, Western Company of North America field engineer, Farmington High School math teacher.
Education: Continuing education, Adams State College; master’s in educational management and development, New Mexico State University, bachelor’s in math education.
Career (from most recent to oldest): Learning Sciences International consultant, Mesa Public School District superintendent, Park City School District superintendent, Maricopa Unified School District deputy superintendent, Northern Arizona University adjunct faculty, Butterfield Elementary School principal, University of Phoenix faculty, Kemper Elementary School principal, Montezuma-Cortez High School principal, Cortez Middle School seventh grade math teacher.
Education: Educational doctorate, Argosy University; master’s in administrative leadership and policy studies, University of Colorado Denver; elementary teacher certificate, Fort Lewis College; bachelor’s in agriculture business, Arizona State University; valedictorian at Dolores High School.
He was superintendent when a Roswell Middle School student shot and injured two classmates in 2014, and as a result became well-versed in leadership through crises, he said.
While his two daughters are students in Roswell, Burris lives part-time in Mancos – although that would change if he became interim superintendent, he said.
“I’m really excited about the prospect of getting back into it and making things work for kids,” he said.
He grew up on a ranch in Albuquerque and still holds those values.
Burris was superintendent of Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools, and he discussed the district’s proximity to the Virgin Galactic spaceport and collaboration with students.
“Something we built went to space,” he said.
Last week, the board appointed executive directors Kyle Archibeque, Cynthia Eldredge and Jim Parr to fulfill VanderWey’s duties until the interim superintendent was selected. Parr was chosen as the district’s point of contact.
The district accepted letters of intent for the interim superintendent position through Monday. The position was verbally announced in a Feb. 8 board work session.
The board must wait 14 days after Tuesday’s special meeting before offering a contract. An announcement will be made March 1 at the board’s work session.
While VanderWey has not publicly addressed her resignation, a letter from the school board cited “philosophical differences of short and long-term goals” between the board and VanderWey.
Former Assistant Superintendent Lis Richard resigned from her position Jan. 4 on disability leave. Her resignation, she said, has nothing do with the situation in the district, she told The Journal on Jan. 24.