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Update: Montezuma-Cortez Superintendent VanderWey formally resigns

Risha VanderWey
Release cites differences between school board and superintendent

Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 announced Monday that Superintendent Risha VanderWey resigned effective Jan. 21.

A letter from the school board, emailed to The Journal Saturday, cited “philosophical differences of short and long-term goals” between the board and VanderWey.

“We appreciate the patience of the community as we value our balance of transparency against the confidentiality needed for some aspects of this process,” the letter continued.

VanderWey’s contract spanned from July 1 to June 30, 2023. Her annual base salary was $125,000 for the 2021-2022 school year, with an annual provisional increase of 2% of the previous year’s base salary thereafter.

The Journal also requested the school board’s evaluations of VanderWey on Monday, and filed a formal request for the evaluations under the Colorado Open Records Act on Tuesday.

In addition, The Journal made a formal request for all electronic and written communications discussing VanderWey by board members in January.

The school board said it would appoint staff to fulfill VanderWey’s duties at its next meeting, on Feb. 22, until the board hires a new superintendent.

The board’s announcement came nearly two weeks after residents and city and school staff began discussing the status of VanderWey’s position and the week after board President Sheri Noyes formally announced in a news release Jan. 24 that VanderWey had been placed on administrative leave.

At January’s school board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 18, the board entered into an executive session for just over an hour to discuss VanderWey’s position. VanderWey was initially not part of the meeting, but was invited in to talk before again being excused, at which point the board had “very little discussion” following, Noyes said.

Timeline of former superintendent Risha VanderWey’s resignation

– July 1, 2021: VanderWey begins her tenure as superintendent in Cortez, after previously serving as superintendent of majority-Navajo Tuba City Unified School District in northern Arizona, and as Coconino County Education Service Agency in Flagstaff.

– Jan. 20, 2022: Word of VanderWey’s paid administrative leave begins to circulate through Cortez.

– Jan. 24: Board President Sheri Noyes issues a brief, three-sentence letter announcing VanderWey’s leave and the formation of a governing “quorum” to replace her. Noyes declines to provide additional details.

– Jan. 28: The Journal requests VanderWey’s employment contract from Kyle Archibeque, executive director of finance, and asks about the duration of VanderWey’s paid administrative leave. Archibeque does not respond.

– Jan. 29: The school board issues a letter announcing that VanderWey chose to resign from the district after “philosophical differences of short- and long-term goals.”

The letter announces a plan to appoint a “quorum” of staff who will fulfill VanderWey’s duties at its next meeting, on Feb. 22, until the board hires a new superintendent.

– Jan. 31: The Journal requests the school board’s evaluations of VanderWey from Debra Ramsey, executive assistant to the superintendent. Ramsey replied that the district was “requesting clarification from the District's council (sic) prior to disclosing any information.”

– Feb. 1: The Journal files formal requests for VanderWey’s contract and board evaluations under the Colorado Open Records Act.

The meeting agenda listed the reason for the private session as “a personnel matter regarding the Superintendent’s evaluation.”

The Jan. 24 news release stated that a governing “quorum of highly qualified administrative staff members” would fill in for VanderWey but did not provide details about the “quorum” staff.

Noyes also would not provide details about VanderWey’s job status.

“They (the community) can come to their own conclusion,” she said.

Former Assistant Superintendent Lis Richard resigned from her position Jan. 4 on disability leave. Her resignation, she said, has nothing do with the current situation in the district, she told The Journal on Jan. 24.

Among well-attended and often tumultuous school board meetings, VanderWey sometimes departed from the board’s majority opinion, most notably on topics such school closures and masking.

VanderWey favored mandatory masking, and the board did not.

On Oct. 1, the school board held a virtual emergency meeting to vote whether to grant VanderWey the power to transition schools into remote learning as needed because of COVID-19 and severe staff shortages.

It denied VanderWey the authority to do so.

Instead, the board decided each director would vote individually by phone whether to permit a request from VanderWey to close schools that school day.

Such a telephone vote would be considered a serial meeting. Although serial meetings are not illegal in Colorado, they lack transparency.

On Oct. 5, the board held another emergency meeting after finding themselves in a legal “gray area.”

The board reaffirmed its decision to deny VanderWey the power to close schools.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t have to ask the board’s permission to close a school,” VanderWey said in that meeting. “But I would rather ask before I close schools because of a workforce issue and/or because of an uptake in the coronavirus.”

The next day, Kemper Elementary School shifted to online learning.

Later that month, all RE-1 schools – apart from the charter schools – closed for two weeks when over 700 students were quarantined with COVID-19 and 51 cases were reported among staff and students.

This article was republished on Feb. 1 with the correction that VanderWey did take part in the executive session.

Jan 24, 2022
Montezuma-Cortez superintendent VanderWey placed on leave