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New Montezuma-Cortez principal resigns, cites contract dispute and pushback

Montezuma-Cortez High School is looking to hire a principal. (Journal file)
Tom Graves advocated for closing campus, stricter rules and more discipline

Incoming Montezuma-Cortez High School Principal Tom Graves resigned July 29 after two weeks on the job, citing a contract dispute and pushback on his school management plans.

Graves was hired on a one-year contract, but said he needed a three-year contract to implement changes needed to improve the school.

Re-1 District Superintendent Tom Burris said he was not agreeable to the contract request, which led to the resignation. Assistant Principal Emily Moreland will serve as interim principal, he said.

The position for principal will be advertised soon. Burris said his administration team will review applicants, and he will hire a new principal. The school board will be informed of the preferred candidate.

Graves told The Journal it was his decision to leave, but he hoped to return to lead the school district.

Tom Graves (Courtesy photo)

As part of his strategy to boost academic performance and reduce absenteeism, Graves proposed phasing in a closed campus system at the high school over a few years.

People complained, he said, saying it has historically been an open campus system, meaning students can leave when not in class.

“Open campus is a liability for the school if something happens to a student when they leave,” Graves said in a phone interview. “The school is not ready for major changes, even though keeping the status quo means underperforming.”

Graves sought to strengthen student accountability and discipline for poor behavior, tardiness and absenteeism. He planned a stricter dress code that prohibited hats, a stricter weapons policy, more robust tardiness and foul language rules, and policy that limited cellphone use while in class.

Specifically, Graves planned a three-strike tardiness policy. A third case of tardiness would result in a 6 a.m. meeting that including the student, the student’s parents and the principal.

Graves described his style as “compassionate accountability,” defined by “discipline, responsibility, hard work and no excuses.”

“It was my decision to leave. They were not going to allow me to implement the changes and wanted me to back off,” he said.

Burris said he was enthusiastic about Graves, but there was miscommunication from the start. A three-year contract was not palatable, he said, adding that promoting major changes like a closed campus needed to be discussed internally first.

Graves said he likes Cortez, its campus and the school board, and wants to use his management style to lead the district toward becoming one of the best-performing schools in the state.

He said he plans to apply for the job Re-1 School District superintendent when the position becomes available.

Graves holds a doctorate in educational foundations, leadership and technology and master’s degrees in educational administration, counseling psychology, and secondary education (science), all from Auburn University.

Before coming to Cortez, Graves worked as a principal in New Mexico’s Española School District and as an educational consultant for schools across the nation. He served in administrative positions at districts in Virginia, Montana, Wyoming, Florida and Alabama, according to his resume. He also worked as a criminal investigator in Alabama.