It’s unclear exactly why Montezuma-Cortez Board of Education President Sheri Noyes took the lone initiative in asking former Superintendent Risha VanderWey to resign or be fired in mid-January. It’s unknown why board members communicated in ways that likely violated Colorado’s Sunshine Law, according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
Whatever the reasons, the school board’s decisions were made without required notice to the public. The focus is now on Noyes and board members. Especially Noyes.
On March 16, The Journal reported this story, which plays out in more than 100 documents of emails and messages, some duplicative, among Noyes and board members, obtained under the Colorado Open Records Act. (This story also ran in The Durango Herald on March 19.) In “daisy chain” discussions, Noyes asked the board to vote on terms of the separation agreement and the wording of news releases about VanderWey. Noyes sent all board members the same information – sometimes in one email or group text, other times in separate messages – and asked for individual replies. This conversation was supposed to be public.
Apparently, on Jan. 18, Noyes asked VanderWey to resign during an executive session of the board’s monthly meeting. Note that Colorado law prohibits public bodies from making decisions during an executive session. Initially, the board publicly announced it would discuss VanderWey’s evaluation.
A letter the next day from Noyes to VanderWey said if a separation agreement weren’t reached by Jan. 21, the board planned to terminate her contract. By Jan. 21, VanderWey’s resignation was official. She had received low marks on a performance evaluation on Jan. 15.
Yet, in a news release on Jan. 29, Noyes attributed VanderWey’s resignation to “philosophical differences.”
Board Director Cody Wells disagreed with the board’s official statement. In a message to Noyes, Wells attributed VanderWey’s resignation to “a poor evaluation due to job performance and district liability” rather than “philosophical differences.”
The school board has the authority to hire and fire superintendents. This may be the most important thing the board does. And it’s supposed to be done in a way that’s transparent and reasonable. School board members know this. They receive state training on how to be effective in their roles.
There’s no reason for secrecy. And why the haste? Why disregard the law and disrespect community members? Doing it this way creates turmoil and drama. Most important, distrust.
After just seven months, VanderWey was out. Beyond COVID-19-related challenges of remote learning, workforce shortages and conflicts over masking, the district faced issues over a four-day school week, critical race theory, a Rainbow Club for LGBTQ+ students, violent student behavior and teacher pay. Like so many other school districts, it was a veritable hornet’s nest.
Cortez also landed on the map with other districts, strong-arming superintendents into resigning or being fired. This strategy, at first glance, looks to be working. We are one more battleground in the culture war.
But this behavior isn’t sustainable because the Montezuma-Cortez school board’s alleged actions are unlawful.
The school board got the attention of Pagosa Springs attorney Matt Roane, too. Roane filed a formal complaint with the Montezuma County District Court on Feb. 24, alleging the board violated Colorado’s Open Meetings Law in a series of private meetings, deciding on VanderWey’s paid administrative leave and separation agreement without notice to the public.
Roane wrote in an email that the district “needs to void its previous actions and restart the entire separation process with Dr. VanderWey.”
He also said that as concerning as the district’s “apparent violations of the Open Meetings Law are, it is comforting to see how the community has reacted (in emails). The citizens ... clearly prize transparency and are willing to speak out when the principle is ignored. That is the only way the Open Meetings Law can really work.”