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Tom Burris selected as Montezuma-Cortez’s interim superintendent

Tom Burris and his two daughters, Avie and Ellie.
Burris replacing former Superintendent Risha VanderWey

Harry Tom Burris was selected as interim superintendent by the Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 Board of Education Tuesday night.

He was chosen over Ember Conley.

The board interviewed the candidates Saturday morning.

Tom Burris’ resume

Career (from most recent to oldest): Roswell Independent School District superintendent, Truth or Consequences Municipal Schools superintendent, Montezuma-Cortez School District business manager and human resources director, Cortez Middle School principal, Cortez Middle School assistant principal, Koogler Middle School principal, Career Prep Alternative School principal, Kirtland Central High School assistant principal, Kirtland Central High School math teacher, San Juan College welding and math teacher, Western Company of North America field engineer, Farmington High School math teacher.

Education: Continuing education, Adams State College; master’s in educational management and development, New Mexico State University, bachelor’s in math education.

Burris will fulfill the duties of Superintendent Risha VanderWey, who resigned in January after receiving low marks on the board’s evaluation after less than seven months on the job.

Both finalists have experience as superintendents and both have held roles in the Montezuma-Cortez district. Several board members knew the candidates from previous working relationships.

“I’m really excited about the prospect of getting back into it and making things work for kids,” Burris, who previously served as superintendent of both the Roswell and Truth or Consequences School Districts in New Mexico, previously told The Journal.

The motion to appoint Burris passed 6-1. Only board Director Cody Wells voted against it.

Wells favored postponing a decision and potentially keeping the three executive directors designated to share the superintendent’s duties in the meantime – Cynthia Eldredge, Kyle Archibeque, and Jim Parr.

“I know they’ll do whatever it takes to keep this district going,” he said.

Other board members agreed and commended the administration’s calm and knowledgeable leadership in the wake of VanderWey’s departure, but said that the three needed the help of an interim superintendent.

“I think we’re in a really good, stable position right now where we shouldn’t rush,” Wells said.

Board Director Ed Rice questioned Wells’ point that the replacement process was rushed.

He drew a comparison to the Bayfield School District, which fired former Superintendent Kevin Aten and replaced him with an interim superintendent in the same board meeting.

Wells was the first to share an opinion, including a few “red flags” he perceived Burris to carry, including an “old-school” mentality about discipline, as well as Burris’ prioritization of tasks in the order they came – a trait other board members liked in Burris.

Board Director Sherri Wright said that Burris said he would enforce policies through principals, not with students directly.

In addition, Wells said he was concerned about past incidents when board members attempted to remove Burris, but he did not go into detail. He also mentioned a lawsuit from a former human resources employee whom Burris fired, although the case was dropped.

Wright said Conley had a similar past – likely referring to her termination as superintendent of Mesa Public Schools.

“No matter who we get at this point, there will be something following any of these interim superintendents,” Board President Sheri Noyes added later in the meeting.

Wright was the first to say she favored Burris over Conley.

“She (Conley) skirted everything, and never once did she mention discipline,” Wright said.

However, she said that Ember gave a “beautiful” interview.

“I think that we need someone strong at the helm. I don’t think she is strong enough to be at the helm,” she said.

She disapproved of Conley’s mention that she would train the board members, saying it wasn’t the superintendent’s job to do that.

“I’m a control freak, and that really screamed control. Because I understand control, I recognize it.” Wright said.

Rice said Burris was persistent and a “strong person” from his previous relationship with him.

Board Director Jeanette Hart joined the conversation to offer positive remarks about Burris’s devotion to education and his leadership approach.

Board directors were concerned about Conley’s request for two weeks off at what would be the end of the school year – a crucial time, they said.

Board Director Stacey Hall liked Burris’ mention during his interview to craft a strategic plan and his desire to make the board apart of its creation. She went on to say that Conley was a good principal in the time she worked under her in the district.

The board said Burris would serve as interim superintendent for about four months.

Board directors said they had received supportive and opposing emails and calls from teachers and residents about each candidate.

The board has not released a timeline for selecting the full-time superintendent.