Candidates in the upcoming Montezuma Cortez Re-1 Board of Education elections made their pitch to community members during a forum Monday evening at the Cortez Elks Lodge.
With several new directors slated to join the board after the November elections, it will be a significant shake-up at a time when the district faces a host of issues, including gun safety and concerns about student performance.
One candidate, Leland Collins, was not in attendance.
Meanwhile, tensions still simmer over Superintendent Tom Burris’ April decision to put former Montezuma-Cortez High School principal Emily Moreland on administrative leave.
At the top of the meeting, Burris addressed his efforts to block directors from interfering in personnel matters.
“The school board has three functions: set the budget, set the policy, and I am the only employee of the school board,” he said.
Candidates were then questioned over whether they would be able to effectively enforce district policies despite potential personal objection. In particular, Jonathan James “JJ” Lewis, who is running in District C to replace outgoing director Sherri Wright, was singled out over his support for Moreland.
“Policy wasn’t followed by, apparently, one of our principals,” one attendee said. “Even though policy was being broke, you stepped up and said, ‘Ignore that, keep this person because she’s really good.’”
In response, Lewis said it was important to support administrators.
“I’m not aware of all the human resources stuff that happened and intricacies on that part,” he added.
Later, he reemphasized that teachers and staff need more support in the schools.
“Last year, you had teachers who were afraid to voice their concerns,” he said.
Other candidates expressed the difficulty they would face in enforcing policies if they were in opposition to personal beliefs.
“It’s going to be a struggle for me,” said Mike Lynch, who is running unopposed in District G to replace outgoing director Layne Frazier. “I believe it’s possible to have a situation where perhaps a state law or a federal law has prompted a particular policy, but that policy goes against certain moral foundations or certain constitutional foundations.”
He also added while speaking to The Journal later on in the evening that he would be a “voice on the school board for conservative family values. I know that can be a lot of different things for different people, but I have my meaning,” said Lynch.
Rafe O’Brien, who is running unopposed in District A to replace outgoing director Cody Wells, echoed a similar sentiment about upholding moral and constitutional values.
“I would follow the policies to the best of my ability,” he said. But “if there’s a moral high ground I feel like I need to stand by, I will stand it.”
O’Brien, whose children go to school in the district, added later that he would love to see more parent and community involvement in the school board and schools in general.
“We all live in this town together. … We all need to do this,” he said.
The candidates all voiced support for the Second Amendment and putting armed, trained personnel in the district’s schools to help prevent potential gun violence.
“As long as it is our right to be armed, we should exercise it,” said Rhonda Tracy, an Air Force veteran who is vying for the seat held by departing director Wright alongside Lewis. “We have to be proactive, and disarming people is not proactive.”
When asked further about her stance on teachers and faculty being allowed to carry firearms in the school if trained to do so, Tracy said, “The people who are trained to use the guns are not the ones who are the problem, who are a danger. The criminals are the danger. And by disarming good people, we don’t make this world a safer place.”
The district also will be testing out a new metal detector system, Burris said at the meeting. If the initial pilot proves successful, the detectors would be used at area schools and football games.
Despite hope among the candidates for a more cordial working relationship between the board and Burris, there were clear policy divisions.
At the start of the meeting, Burris touted the recent improvement in test scores. But both Wright and Tracy later expressed concern with a curriculum focused squarely on success at standardized testing.
“People get really focused on test scores. We heard a lot about test scores tonight. But I think we need to look at the whole child,” Tracy told The Journal.
Tracy also emphasized getting back to the basics of reading, writing, math and the arts to make students are learning what they need to be learning in school, sharing that she once taught seventh graders who did not know how to properly write a sentence.
Finally, Lewis, who was outspoken about the firing of Moreland during a spring board meeting, spoke to The Journal about his relationship with Burris following that meeting where he called for his resignation.
“I hope to improve that relationship. I reached out to him and asked for a meeting to work collaboratively and establish a collaborative relationship, but at this point in time he has refused to do so,” Lewis said. “He has stated that, should I be elected, he will be willing to meet with me at that point.”