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Montezuma-Cortez survey shows low morale of staff and students amid change

Students voiced their concerns April 20 in a walkout at Montezuma-Cortez High School over teacher retention and Principal Emily Moreland being put on administrative leave. (Bailey Duran/Special to the Journal)
Staff, students and residents voice concerns as issues pile up in school district

Surveys at Montezuma-Cortez High School this spring showed low morale about school culture as teachers and students alike faced turnover among staff and instability in district management in the past year.

Anonymous survey results acquired by The Journal showed that only 43% of respondents said they felt that school staff cared for them as people, and 44% of respondents were neutral.

“They just wanna get paid,” one student said.

“Teachers are there to teach, I doubt they’d care for a student they see once a day,” another said.

More than 290 students participated in the student survey out of the roughly 600 students enrolled at the school. Students were sent surveys during their homeroom class, but not all students have homeroom.

Montezuma-Cortez Superintendent Tom Burris
Former high school principal Emily Moreland

About 80 staff members were sent a similar survey, and 18 completed it. Most of the survey respondents were teachers. Staff surveys also showed frustration as teachers and other faculty voiced concerns about staff and school culture.

Many of the terms used to describe staff or district culture included “antagonistic,” “divided,” “cynical,” “negative,” “stuck-in-their-ways,” “pessimistic” and “fearful.”

Fear rose to the top of the complaints, as teachers commented that they felt they couldn’t say what they truly think “for fear of ramifications.” “It is often better to just stay quiet than ask questions or offer suggestions,” one comment said.

A few teachers recorded in the staff survey noted that the low rate of retention of faculty and staff has had a negative impact on student well-being.

Other staff said they felt underappreciated and disrespected by the Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 Board of Education and upper administrators.

Still, many praised the efforts of high school administrators, which at the time consisted of Principal Emily Moreland and assistant principals Lauren White and Jennifer Boniface. Boniface is now working as the interim principal at the high school.

Teachers noted that Moreland, White and Boniface were doing “great work” to boost student engagement and make teachers feel heard and welcomed in the schools.

“You are not what is wrong with this district,” one survey respondent said.

The survey was quickly dismissed from the top. When asked about the survey, Superintendent Tom Burris responded by email on June 9.

“Any survey you have was not vetted and therefore cannot be held to a legitimate standard,” he stated.

Wave of resignations, student pleas follow

After Moreland was placed on administrative leave April 18, parents, students and faculty alike began voicing their concerns, sometimes on Facebook, about the high turnover rate in the high school and district and attributing much of the problem to actions by Burris.

A letter from Burris informed Moreland that she would be placed on administrative leave. It noted that the district would launch an investigation of her, but did not state what would be investigated or when the investigation would conclude.

Moreland’s forced leave was followed by a wave of resignations. Assistant Principal Lauren White quit on April 18. Her last day was April 20.

Athletic Director Louis Horton’s last day was April 18, and he cited the treatment of Moreland as one of his reasons for leaving. The new finance director, Jim Grierson, and two different secretaries, Cammy Stevens and Cristy Reyes, resigned as well, though for reasons not directly tied to Moreland’s case.

At the same time, students began to express their concerns about the staff change and instability in the district. About 30 students walked out of class on April 20 to express their concerns over the instability of staff and the district, saying they just wanted to graduate without turmoil rocking their school.

“We need stability,” a sign held by one of the students said.

Cruz Hernandez, an incoming junior at M-CHS, wrote a letter to the editor on May 24, but both Hernandez and the Durango Herald’s opinion editor, Ann Marie Swan, said his letter wasn’t published as a letter to an editor because he is a minor, and parental permission is needed.

Swan also said Cruz’s letter exceeded the word count for a letter to the editor.

In his letter, Hernandez sounded the alarm on what he has seen going on in the school, asking that student voices be heard.

“The issues being faced are mainly due to a lack of transparency, false accusations and much more,” Hernandez said. “As a student, Burris says that we should leave adult matters to the adults, taking away not only our voices, but the staff as well since if they act out, they could lose their jobs.”

Hernandez also spoke of the work done by Moreland, saying she had made a positive change to the school.

“She was nothing but kind, welcoming and full of charisma. She truly got to know every student and staff member. She made several improvements with safety in our school,” he said.

Hernandez said he attempted to meet with Burris multiple times to discuss issues going on in the school from a student’s perspective, but Burris canceled each time.

He provided The Journal with texts from Burris to support his claims.

Burris goes public with personnel issues

On April 25, a week after she was placed on leave, Moreland emailed Burris and the Montezuma-Cortez Board of Education, asking for more information about the investigation and when it would end.

She received a response from district attorney Brad Miller on April 25, but the email did not respond to her questions about the investigation.

In response to The Journal’s questions on June 9 about the status of Moreland’s investigation, Burris’ emailed response again was brief.

“That is a personnel matter and I cannot talk about any personnel matter,” he stated.

However, Burris had already gone public with his case against Moreland, publishing three columns in May on The Journal’s Opinion page, publicly addressing personnel issues on May 3, proclaiming the need for teamwork on May 10 and criticizing comments directed toward him on May 24.

On May 3, Burris started his series of columns with a direct accusation against Moreland, claiming that she didn’t provide lesson plans as requested by the district for all teachers.

However, documents obtained by The Journal show that Moreland did encourage teachers to do lesson plans and that they had been provided to higher-ups in the district.

Local mental health co-responder and psychotherapist JJ Lewis addressed the Montezuma-Cortez Board of Education on May 16. (Screen capture)
Public criticism of Burris mounts

Public criticism of Burris mounted as residents rose to speak during the Board of Education meeting on May 16. Burris was absent.

During the portion of the meeting when residents address the board, many spoke out about their frustration with the Montezuma-Cortez school district, specifically naming Burris and the board.

Teacher Dan Tamminga said there had been opportunities for Burris to address staff about issues in the district and what had happened with Moreland, but instead, Burris chose to get information out by publishing op-eds in the newspaper.

He noted that the lack of communication and staff issues had caused an unstable environment for students and staff alike.

“Students feel as though their voices have been stifled, and teachers are afraid to speak out and stand for their students,” Tamminga said.

JJ Lewis, a local emergency health mental health co-responder, social worker, psychotherapist and adventure therapist, said he spoke on behalf of staff and students who faced an increasingly tense school culture.

He said he would “address the ineptitude that is irrefutable” and called for Burris to step down as superintendent.

“He has created a culture of fear, intimidation, retribution and abuse,” Lewis said. “I demand Burris step down immediately.”

Burris challenged Lewis’ comments in an op-ed column in The Journal on May 24, questioning whether Lewis had visited the school, and stating that “never before in my life been called a bully.”

Era of the ‘bucket boy’

Burris’ tactics were discussed in 2022, when the board selected him to replace Superintendent Risha VanderWey, who resigned in January 2022.

The motion to appoint Burris passed 6-1. Only Cody Wells voted against it, noting a few “red flags” about Burris and an “old-school” mentality about discipline.

And according to former Cortez Middle School student Jake Meyer, Burris had been in hot water before because of disciplinary methods.

In Montezuma-Cortez schools, the turn of the 21st century was the era of the “bucket kids.”

Meyer said he became the first “bucket boy” in 1998 while attending Cortez Middle School. After being reprimanded for making too much noise in class, Meyer was taken out to the edge of the football field facing U.S. Highway 160/491, where he was required to sit on a bucket for about three hours until Burris came back for him.

Meyer said he wasn’t permitted to have water or anything with him. Instead, he was given the drumsticks he had been using in class to keep him occupied.

“He had me sit on a bucket out there in the sun right next to the highway so the people driving by could see me so that I would be humiliated,” Meyer said. “And I spent the rest of the day sitting out there until, I don't know, about 15 minutes before the end of the day.”

Other students were required to sit with a cone on their head, Meyer said.

There were multiple “bucket kids” during Burris’ tenure at the middle school before he moved to New Mexico.

On the outside looking in

Former teacher Susan Wisenbaker weighed in on what she has observed from the outside looking in as a former teacher for the district.

“It's distressing because I really feel like we made a lot of headway during my tenure there,” she said. “It just seems like all the wheels are falling off, and I think that the community needs to understand what is going on. Because when you vote for school board members, it does matter.”

When asked about the number of resignations happening at the high school, as well as Moreland being placed on administrative leave, board member Ed Rice said on April 26 that the expectation of the district’s principals is “to follow the directives from the superintendent, which are directives from the school board.”

“Those are some things that we didn’t feel were being taken care of. The other resignations, two of them, had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Rice said, calling it a “perfect storm.”

No other member of the board responded to The Journal’s requests for comment.