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Montezuma-Cortez school staff speak of ‘climate of distrust’

Seventh grade counselor Robyne Cote addresses the board during citizen comments. (Screen Capture via Zoom)
Frustrations focus on staff workload, administration decisions, contract surprises

The Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 school board on Tuesday heard from staff about frustrations with contracts and communication, learned about a teacher exchange program and discussed the community survey on a potential bond and mill levy.

During the public comment period, a mother of three Montezuma-Cortez High School graduates and seventh grade counselor Robyne Cote told the board that while only a handful of staff would speak that evening, many more had grievances “identified through extensive collaboration.”

According to Cote, staff usually receive their new contracts before the end of the school year, but this year’s contracts came June 3 “with the express instruction to sign them within only 15 days or our jobs would be posted.”

The teachers felt they weren’t given time to understand the terms of the contract.

“Due to the short time frame and the lack of adequate communication on the details of that contract, many teachers reached out to the district admin with many questions, but the answers we received were rushed, vague and unsatisfactory,” Cote said. “We felt the need to express our concerns in a way that they were sure to be heard.”

Cote spoke of a “climate of distrust” and asked that the district value and take care of the teachers in their care.

“The staff in this room tonight and the staff that support these letters are the people who pick up the slack, train new staff and take extra time to try to keep the ship sailing,” Cote said. “We are not here because of the pay or recognition. We are here because we believe in these schools, we believe in our students and we believe in our community. We are professionals who work hard and give time, resources and our hearts to what we do. We need you as a board to be aware that a climate of distrust between school staff and the district admin is forming.”

Staff also asked that their feedback be valued.

“We wonder how we can help to improve student outcomes when our district leaders do not value the perspective of our on-the-ground staff or at all,” Cote said.

Megan Ferguson, who will be the new district librarian after a year in the district, said she, teacher Emily Pearson and other staff were frustrated with hasty changes to their work schedules that “impede student growth.”

“I am new to your district, and I’m looking at this organization’s work culture and I’m saying, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Ferguson said. “The Mesa family was completely blindsided by major decisions without district admin ever setting foot into our classes or talking to us about what would be best for our students’ well-being and academic growth … These hasty decisions to dismantle programs and to reassign people without complaint really makes me worried about the focus and integrity of our district admin and how the board governs these decisions.”

According to Ferguson, Mesa Elementary interventionists are being assigned to other schools, and intervention work will be piled onto their teaching responsibilities.

“Does the district admin really believe that giving teachers more responsibility, less support and expecting better results is the way to retain quality staff? The money will not keep the right people in your district,” Ferguson said.

Science teacher and U.S. Army veteran Mario Davidson followed, saying teachers were surprised to see an extra half-hour in their workday. Teachers who also are parents, like himself, may find it difficult to manage the extra load.

“We received an email yesterday citing reasons for this, a change that once again, makes us feel untrusted as professionals,” Davidson said, “adding to these specific work hours and many hours that teachers already put in outside our contract every week. … So please give me a student-centered reason why we need additional contract hours during the critical, daily transition between my work and home life.”

Davidson said that in the short time he has worked in the district, he has seen trust increasingly erode.

“One sign of this erosion is the number of staff members who chose not to attend this evening because of fear of reprisal in the district,” Davidson said, adding, “we risk even greater retention problems.”

Lyssa Lycan, English language teacher and department chair, followed.

“We are here because of the incredible, self-reflective, innovative teachers we work with and the resilient, thoughtful children,” Lycan said. “I think the community would be shocked to realize that the consequences of understaffed schools is that we will be hiring dozens of non-U. S. citizens to educate our children. The returning staff in this room are the ones who will be supporting these new teachers we bring in and trying to keep the ship moving forward.”

Earlier, during Human Resource’s report, the board was told that the district is attempting to be part of a cultural exchange teacher program, which brings in foreign teachers on visas to alleviate staff shortages.

According to Cynthia Eldridge, the district is working to hire nine J1 and four H1B teachers to teach ESS at Mesa and Kemper and science and math in other schools.

“We’ve begun to feel that the solutions that the district is putting in place are at the expense of the returning teachers,” Lycan said. “Staff are being moved around the district without being consulted. Successful programs are being shut down to fill gaps, and decisions are being made without teacher input … We want to work in a district where our voices are heard and respected and where we are given the trust and autonomy to do out jobs in the short term.”

Many others spoke, and a parent told the board that in the year between her son’s graduation and her daughter’s junior year, outcomes have changed drastically.

“I’m not asking for something 10 years ago, I am asking for something we had one year ago,” she said. “Our advanced, gifted and talented students have been suffering because of teacher turnover.”

Board members said they would follow up on the concerns. At least two said they had not heard the concerns before, and urged speakers to email them.

Board discusses mill levy survey

The board and Burris then spoke of a new survey, which was meant to gauge interest in raising funds for salaries and a new elementary school.

The survey is available online at https://bit.ly/3KRJgYP.

According to Burris, Mesa and Kemper elementaries and Beech Street Preschool had exceeded the expected life span of 50 years. He said they wanted a “big and flat” site because they didn’t want to put young children in a two-story building with stairs.

Executive session

After action items, the board went into executive session with district attorney Brad Miller for 10 minutes with “complainant” Amanda Robinson, health teacher and electives department chairperson. Miller also met with Burris for 10 minutes.

The board said it denied the grievance after finding no policy violation. They hoped that the complainant and the accused could put the incident in the past.

The board next meets Tuesday, July 16 at 6 p.m.