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Montezuma-Cortez school board addresses VanderWey’s paid leave, separation agreement

The Montezuma-Cortez Board of Education discussed and approved former Superintendent Risha VanderWey's paid administrative leave and separation agreement in a special meeting Tuesday.
Board formally approves both measures in special meeting

The Montezuma-Cortez Board of Education addressed former Superintendent Risha VanderWey’s paid administrative leave and separation agreement in a special meeting Tuesday night.

The board took official action to approve both measures. The paid administrative leave and separation agreement were not previously executed in public meetings. In Tuesday’s meeting, board members emphasized that the actions were implemented with legal advice, and Board President Sheri Noyes claimed most of the responsibility.

Noyes provided a timeline of the events that led to VanderWey’s paid administrative leave.

VanderWey offered her resignation Jan. 18, Noyes said. On Jan. 20, VanderWey sent a text saying she would remain working in the district until a separation agreement with the district was finalized.

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The Journal previously reported that Noyes asked VanderWey for her resignation in a Jan. 18 executive session. VanderWey was given a written ultimatum Jan. 19 to resign or be fired.

Tuesday’s special meeting came 11 weeks after that January executive session.

Noyes said the district’s lawyer advised her to place VanderWey on paid administrative leave while contract negotiations were being finalized.

Noyes drafted and delivered the letter to VanderWey that formally placed her on paid administrative leave, effective Jan. 21, she said.

Noyes said she had no interaction with the rest of the board up to that point, and that she believed as board president she had the authority to place VanderWey on leave.

Board Director Ed Rice joined the discussion, saying that the board decision came amid a difficult time for school boards “everywhere,” but that board members were in agreement about the decision.

“I know that our end result that we were looking for was what was best for students and staff in this district,” he said.

“At that time, we were all on board with the agreement,” said board Director Jeanette Hart.

“You did it in the best interest of the district and under legal guidance,” Wright said to Noyes.

“I think that we’ve all grown and learned from this experience, and we’re ready to move forward and get on with where we need to be with helping our staff and our students,” board Director Stacey Hall said.

“I think what’s important here is that we were following legal advice,” board Director Layne Frazier said. “We did nothing that we were not told to do.”

He clarified that he was mostly talking about Noyes’ actions.

“I concur,” said Cynthia Eldredge, district human resources director. “Legal advice came through several channels.”

The board then unanimously approved VanderWey’s paid administrative leave.

It moved on to the district’s separation agreement with VanderWey.

Noyes again delved into a timeline, saying she received a text from VanderWey the evening of Jan. 18 stating that she would resign after her lawyer spoke with the district’s lawyer.

The separation agreement was handled by the two lawyers, Noyes said.

Noyes said she worked with the district’s law firm at the time, Caplan & Earnest, on details of the separation agreement, signed Jan. 27 and effective Jan. 21.

Wright clarified that the separation agreement was executed mainly by the lawyers.

“You were kept updated, but not really involved,” Wright said to Noyes, who agreed.

Wright then asked whether it was at VanderWey’s request to involve lawyers involved, which Noyes said, “Yes.”

“That’s pretty much what happened, just between the lawyers,” Noyes said.

“Was the date agreeable with her (VanderWey) effective Jan. 21?” Wright asked.

Noyes said it was.

The board then unanimously approved the separation agreement with VanderWey.

Brad Miller, of the district’s new law firm Miller Farmer Law, was present at the meeting.

VanderWey’s separation agreement with the district, signed Jan. 27, provided her a severance payment of $54,597.70 and a release of claims for both parties. The arrangement prohibits the board and VanderWey from discussing the separation agreement with a third party.

The Journal previously reported that the the board voted 4-3 to remove conditions about nondisparagement in the separation agreement and voted 6-1 to deny VanderWey a monetary payout of her insurance premium through June. Board members individually cast their votes to Noyes after she approached them with the details in online chat discussions.

The removal of the nondisparagement clause would “allow us to respond to any negative or incorrect information that might be out there” Noyes wrote in a group message to the board.

The insurance payout was $4,868.50.

Noyes has not explained why she asked VanderWey for her resignation.

Pagosa Springs lawyer Matt Roane filed a lawsuit against the district on Feb. 24 seeking to invalidate the board’s separation agreement with VanderWey and to bar the board from taking formal action without legal public notice.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board announced three finalists vying for the role of full-time superintendent: Christopher Burr, David Crews and Jack (John) Props. Tom Burris is serving as the district’s interim superintendent.

The board also discussed salary schedules. The proposed salary schedules would boost pay for district staff come the 2022-2023 school year.

And while district staff will generally work the same total overall hours, they will work less overall days in-line with the new four-day calendar.

No employee will experience a dip in pay.

The initiative, once approved by the board, will retain and attract new talent to the school district, Executive Director of Finance Kyle Archibeque emphasized.

Board members applauded the efforts of administrative staff to work on the proposed salary schedules, and expressed their excitement about the pay raises.

The Journal will publish a follow-up article on the proposed salary schedules.