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Montezuma-Cortez talks potential consolidation, four-day school week

Proposals would help mitigate staff shortages

The Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 discussed potential school consolidation and a transition to a four-day school week to address staff shortages at its October work session and board meeting Tuesday night.

The board didn’t vote on officially implementing either proposal, but plans to revisit them in November. While consolidation likely wouldn’t begin this school year, the board plans to vote next month whether to shift to four-day school weeks beginning in January.

“We’re losing staff, and we’re losing students, and we’re going to have to do something,” said board President Sherri Wright.

Wright said she has advocated for school consolidation for five to six years. She has proposed downsizing to a school for kindergarten through second grade and one for third through fifth grade.

She said she is still trying to persuade Superintendent Risha VanderWey to get completely on board with the plan.

The plan would easily allow students to sit in on classes above or below their grade level depending on their individual learning needs, she said.

“I don’t like the shaming stuff that goes on,” Wright said.

She also said the consolidation would balance varying class sizes.

“This will be the great equalizer,” she said.

VanderWey and Executive Director of Human Resources Cyndi Eldredge have studied enrollment capability of schools, and three schools are currently below capacity, VanderWey said.

“We’re wasting a lot of money, and this is taxpayers’ dollars,” she said. “We need to become more efficient and effective in order to provide the best education opportunities for the kids that we serve — as well as provide our teachers a cohesive environment that’s just more efficient.”

Wright and board Tammy Hooten said they sat down for three hours about a month ago to seriously consider consolidation.

The consolidation would pave the way for more teacher planning time, Wright said.

“I see it as a very positive move forward, but when we take it to the community they may not see it that way – and they may have something even better,” she said.

VanderWey doesn’t take the downsizing lightly. She would want to hold community forums to gauge public opinion, and recognizes that there are generational ties to certain schools.

“There’s blood and sweat and tears in these schools – and to talk about closing a school becomes very personal. It becomes very passionate, and it is real. We recognize that, and we don’t want to add additional stress or pressure in already a time where I think there’s some stress and pressure with the COVID and such,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to fret right now; we’re at the preliminary. We want to honor people’s thoughts and suggestions.”

Board member Sheri Noyes asked how rural schools like Pleasant View be affected, and board members and VanderWey said that would be figured out in future conversations.

Eldredge said the consolidation would mitigate safety issues that have arisen among staff shortages, as well as ensure children are receiving more personalized and enriched learning experiences.

“We have to make sure we have staff for every classroom,” she said.

The conversation evolved to addressing problems with the infrastructure of schools, although Eldredge said she needs to work through details before making official recommendations.

VanderWey and Hooten briefly explored the idea of applying for a Building Excellent Schools Today grant to build new schools, and, long-term, perhaps even shifting to a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school.

She said she has asked officials if the county would be interested in acquiring any of the school buildings.

Noyes clarified that basic consolidation would be a temporary situation to address staff shortages.

VanderWey said each school has employee shortages, for varying reasons.

Currently, the district doesn’t have a plan for closing any building. VanderWey wants to hear community feedback before tracking forward with major plans, although she discussed that the district would be unable to make everyone happy.

“The amount of people that we have had resign in the last seven weeks is more than I have ever seen in the history of my life – and I come from a place where we had 25 to 35% of staff turnover every year,” she said.

VanderWey again mentioned that employees from the district administration office have stepped in to cover classes.

“I have a lot of people here who might want to quit just because I’m telling them to go teach, because I want our kids in a bricks-and-mortar school so they can learn the best that they can,” she said. “We are doing things because we have to, not because we want to.”

VanderWey said consolidation would be implemented beginning next August “in a perfect world.”

Four-day school week

Past discussions of four-day school weeks were revived during Tuesday’s work session, and RE-1 may be making the transition as early as January, following the lead of the Mancos and Dolores school districts.

Shorter school weeks will give teachers more instructional planning time, Wright said.

“I bet half the people don’t even remember what their 5-year-old child looks like anymore,” she said of the teachers.

VanderWey said this is another proposal that, in a typical school year, she wouldn’t recommend – especially midyear. But, this isn’t a typical school year, she said.

She has permission from the Colorado Department of Education to move the district into four-day weeks. She just needs Board of Education approval, and can then implement the change in 30 days, she said. In an emergency situation, she said she doesn’t need board approval to make the call.

The district would look at solutions for addressing student and employee needs in the absence of a fifth school day.

For instance, the district would consider providing grab-and-go lunches for students on Fridays, as well as partnering with local organizations to offer childcare.

To avoid decreasing work time for hourly employees, the district would evaluate strategies like having bus drivers deliver lunches to students on Fridays, VanderWey said, as well as having custodians deep clean buildings while no students are around.

Eldredge said the district wouldn’t be able to reduce employee working hours to the point where they would lose benefits anyway.

Monday holidays that previously warranted three-day weekends would likely become regular instructional days, VanderWey said.

While she could have applied for a waiver to implement a calendar with less than 160 school days, VanderWey said she believes in following the recommended number of school days.

Noyes asked what brought the district to discussing a four-day week.

VanderWey said workforce shortages and culture and climate are critical issues in the district, and that difficulties are escalating for both staff and students.

“What I’ve heard since the third week of school is ‘This feels like May’ and I’ve heard that over and over and over again,” VanderWey said.

Staff were planning a walkout, she said. She released a video last week urging teachers to come to school.

“People were going to walk because they don’t feel like we are listening to them,” she said. “They feel like we don’t care.”

She said staff are exhausted across the district, and students, too, have struggled this year.

“They’re behaving in a more difficult manner to resolve than normally just due to the COVID,“ she said.

She hopes the four-day week would ease burdens on teachers.

“This is an attempt to tell my teachers and our staff we see it, we recognize it. We need you to come back, we need you to stay here this year, our community needs you, our kids need to be together, we need in-person learning,” she said.

The transition to a four-day week would be more seamless after conducting half the school year with five-day weeks, said Executive Director of Academic Student Services Jim Parr. The district would only have to add a few minutes to daily schedules to balance out the year, he said.

About five days would be added to the calendar, and 18 Fridays would be removed, making the last day of school May 26.

Parr said the change wouldn’t pose additional financial commitment.

School would be in session for more total hours with a four-day school week, Assistant Superintendent Lis Richard said.

Board member Stacey Hall worried about the graduation date remaining slated for May 19, and potential resulting declines in attendance throughout the rest of the high school thereafter.

“It will create a nightmare for the high school,” she said.

However, Parr said that Montezuma-Cortez High School Principal Eric Chandler was adamant about keeping the graduation date the same.

Wright said she was concerned about gathering enough community input before making a decision.

“If we don’t do it now, we’re going to lose staff,” Hooten said. “The community will be at home with their children teaching their children without any support from the staff because we have a walkout.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, one grandmother of a student expressed concern about the four-day week proposal.

“I don’t understand why teachers are so stressed,” she said. “I feel this is an error to put teachers before the students and the parents.”

A bus driver for the district addressed the board about the four-day weeks as well, with questions about how pay and contracts may change.

“If you want to cut transportation, tell us. Cut it. It’s OK. I’d rather have the truth blunt and in my face than get stabbed in the back come next year when it comes contract time.”