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Montezuma-Cortez school board passes resolution opposing critical race theory

The Montezuma-Cortez Board of Education held its monthly meeting Tuesday, and discussed topics including critical race theory, COVID-19, teacher pay and staffing.
Other issues discussed: staffing shortage, teacher pay, student violence, an LGBTQ+ club and COVID-19

The Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 Board of Education passed a motion to approve a “Resolution Opposing Principles of Critical Race Theory” document at its September meeting on Tuesday.

The board established a committee to comb through school curriculum and remove “embedded” traces of critical race theory.

John Schuenemeyer was the only board member to vote against the motion, although Chris Flaherty, who was not in attendance, on Thursday told The Journal he disagreed with the decision as well. Flaherty and Schuenemeyer announced earlier Thursday that they had resigned from their board positions.

Schuenemeyer and Flaherty said they have talked individually with district teachers about critical race theory.

“They perceive it as an effort to remove anything in teaching materials that portrays Indigenous people and other non-Caucasians in a favorable light,” Schuenemeyer said.

From what he’s gathered from teachers, Flaherty said that the current Wit and Wisdom curriculum is “just a guideline – it’s not, ‘You must read this.’”

“Almost 50% of our kids in this district are non-white – are you telling them that race doesn’t matter?” Schuenemeyer said at the meeting.

He said he was concerned that the motion would eliminate diversity in schools, and that it was a waste of time and money.

“We are not trying to get rid of any culture, diversity, anything like that – it is completely just the racism part,” said board member Sheri Noyes. “Nobody should apologize for anything, nobody should blame anybody for anything that happened eons ago, years ago – it shouldn’t still be in our school today.”

Board member Sherri Wright said that the motion wouldn’t erase history from school curriculum.

She met with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which requested the board take out the clause “Neither schools nor instructors shall assign individuals or groups of students to participate in class or complete assignments based on their racial identity,” because the tribe felt it limited their students to identify and express their culture.

“We still learn the bad – you just don’t blame people for it. You just say, ‘We’re going to learn from that so that we will not do it again,” she said.

Forrest Kohere, an eighth grade language arts teacher at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School, addressed the board earlier in the meeting Tuesday about critical race theory.

“The amount of work it takes to internalize and teach a new curriculum should not be underestimated,” he said. “To come back to school in the fall and find the board putting together a committee to reopen and possibly remove our curriculum was devastating.”

Vetting possible curriculum, learning new curriculum and preparing to teach it involved many hours of work over the summer – many of them unpaid, he said. He didn’t want to start over with a new curriculum.

“In a year when we should have many other priorities taking center stage,” he said, “our ELA teachers have had to volunteer their time to explain again the procedures followed for adopting curriculum, the educational science behind the curriculum and the national ratings for the curriculum – all of which was information that was provided in the detailed report to the board in May and resulted in the curriculum being passed.”

Kohere proposed a short-term solution: Have the board acknowledge that the curriculum was adopted following policy, and request that the board refrain from stating the curriculum contained critical race theory before officially defining it.

Wright later read a definition on the theory from Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights and critical race theory scholar and law professor at Columbia Law School and the University of California, Los Angeles.

An excerpt from what Wright shared, which Crenshaw said to Time magazine in an email, says, “It’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”

In the future, staff members would be happy to continue examining the curriculum using the board definition of critical race theory, Kohere said.

“We suggest that the curriculum committee created to discuss the presence of CRT be reorganized to actually reflect the demographics of our school community,” he said.

If the new committee found critical race theory in the sixth through eighth grade curriculum, staff members would be willing to work on removing it, he said.

In an excerpt of his resignation letter, Schuenemeyer wrote:

“In reality, CRT is a highly complex subject taught at the graduate level in a university. The resolution declaring opposition to Critical Race Theory approved by a majority of the Board on Sept. 21, 2021 did not: 1) contain a definition of Critical Race Theory, 2) describe who is qualified to make these judgments, 3) state how teachers will participate or 4) describe an appeal process. By approving this resolution, the Board has ignored the fact that nearly 50% of our students are non-white.”

Teacher pay and staff shortage

On Tuesday, the school board passed a motion to increase pay for teachers who cover other classes during districtwide staffing shortages, as well as for paraprofessionals who work in exceptional student services.

The increased wages will date to Sept. 1.

Current staff shortages correlate with teacher pay, said RE-1 Director of Human Resources Cynthia Eldredge at the monthly meeting.

She made pay recommendations to the board to address the issues — along with Director of Finance Kyle Archibeque — which were passed.

The district is critically short of ESS paraprofessionals, she said, and the board voted to make their starting hourly rate $14.50 instead of $13.50.

She also recommended increasing teacher-for-teacher substitute salaries. In the secondary schools, if a teacher fills in for an absent teacher, they are paid $13.33 an hour. For activities outside of regularly scheduled work hours, like tutoring, teachers receive an hourly rate of $30.48, she said. She wanted this rate to apply to teacher-for-teacher subbing.

Increasing teacher pay has been an ongoing board discussion. Teachers currently start at a salary of about $32,000, Director of Finance Kyle Archibeque told The Journal on Sept. 7.

LGBTQ+ club at middle school

Some community members addressed the board about a student-led, LGBTQ+ lunchtime club that meets once a week, known as the Rainbow Club.

Under the first reading section on the board’s agenda was a proposal to amend district policy JJA-2 concerning student organizations, redlining the part that says: “Lunch period is considered ‘noninstructional time.’”

“This is their one time a week where they just get together at lunch and support each other,” said Flaherty on Thursday after his resignation.

Janet Hough supports the club.

“’Every Student. Every Day.’ includes LGBTQIA+ students and allies. The students have the right to start, access and participate in a supportive club that helps them feel less alone,” she said during the public comment section.

Tiffany Ghere said the club needed to “be gone” and be conducted after school hours.

“A child who has not had a period, not had a first kiss, maybe does not need to be taught about their sexual identity,” she said. “What a better way to confuse an already confusing time in our children’s life,” she said.

Student discipline

“This week, several discipline issues have come across my desk so I’m trying to deal aggressively with those and handle them,” said Assistant Superintendent Lis Richard. “I know how frustrating it is as a principal not to have the attention you need and the action that you need.”

Another teacher from M-CMS addressed this issue with the board, saying some students engage in behaviors like yelling profanities at teachers and throwing chairs.

Currently, the middle school has 543 enrolled students.

“The vast majority of these students are wonderful and make our school community a pleasant place to be,” he said. “However, we also serve a number of students who have incredibly high levels of behavioral issues that take an immense amount of time and energy.”

The school has seen 40% of its referrals come from repeated behaviors in the same students, he said.

“Some of these students have needs that we simply do not have the resources to serve,” he said. “Many of these student behaviors seem to have protection to such a degree that any behavior – no matter how detrimental to the learning environment it may be – is not allowed to be consequenced in a way consistent with our student handbook or Colorado state law.”

COVID-19 update

The Montezuma-Cortez School District issued a letter saying that as of Wednesday, the district had seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases so far this school year.

The district also reported that for the first time, students were infecting other students.

A letter Thursday from the middle school said the Montezuma County Health Department identified an outbreak in one of the sixth grade classrooms, and said there were nine positive cases – five in the past two days. The students have been quarantined since Friday, it said.

Since the beginning of the school year, there have been 30 total cases of COVID-19 in the district, Richard said Tuesday at the board meeting.

As of Tuesday night, five students and three staff members were virus-positive. No staff members had tested positive in the past two weeks of school until Tuesday evening, she said.

Seventy-four students are quarantined, Richard said.

Superintendent Risha VanderWey has not responded to requests for comment about current district case numbers.