A divide as sharp and deep as the one that resulted in a local teacher strike in the early 1980s appears to have arisen in Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1.
Based on disagreements over everything from how positively to portray the history of the United States to whether LGBTQ students can gather at lunchtime to whether students should wear masks in school, the rift was very clear during the Sept. 21 meeting of the Re-1 school board.
The meeting lasted well over four hours and saw a host of citizens, many of whom do not have children in the schools, complaining about the supposed teaching of critical race theory in classes and criticizing a lunch group for LGBTQ and other kids.
On the other hand, a number of teachers and citizens spoke in favor of keeping the current curriculum and in support of the weekly meeting of what’s called the Lunch Bunch.
At the end of the meeting, the board voted 4-1 to pass a resolution declaring its “official opposition to principles of critical race theory.”
Jack Schuenemeyer was the dissenting vote. Sherri Wright, Sheri Noyes, Tammy Hooten, and Stacey Hall voted in favor of the resolution. Cody Wells, who replaced a previous board member who was recalled this February, was absent, as was Chris Flaherty.
Schuenemeyer and Flaherty both resigned a day later in opposition to the passage of the resolution.
“It was sort of a painful decision,” Schuenemeyer later told the Four Corners Free Press. “I didn’t feel I could make any further contributions to the board.”
His term was about to end anyway. The seven-member board has six vacancies set for election in November, but only one of the six races is contested.
In addition to the comments and discussions about critical race theory and the Lunch Bunch – a weekly informal gathering where LGBTQ and other students share support (and sometimes pizza) – comments were made at the school-board meeting about the critical shortage of teachers and staff in Re-1.
The board passed a measure to up the pay for teachers who are covering vacancies in other classes and for ESS (exceptional student services) paraprofessionals, who are in very short supply.
“Every campus is short special-ed or ESS paras,” Cyndi Eldredge, executive director of human resources, told the board. “One is short eight ESS paras, another one four. We have a huge shortage of ESS paraprofessionals.”
Eldredge said the amount of work the paraprofessionals do is remarkable. “We need to hold these individuals up on pedestals for what they do for our students,” she said.
The paraprofessionals now will have their hourly pay increased by $1, from $13.50 to $14.50.
Pay for teachers and staff is an enormous issue in the district, Lissa Juniper Lycan, the chair of the English Language Arts Department at Cortez Middle School, told the Four Corners Free Press in a phone interview. (See article on Page 6.)
“We shouldn’t pay our paraprofessionals less than McDonald’s,” Lycan said.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Eldredge also spoke about the need for more substitute teachers.
“We have an extreme shortage of substitutes,” Eldredge told the board. That means that at times regular teachers serve as substitutes, taking over some classes in addition to teaching their own. Yet they were being paid $13 an hour for that, she said, while if they were hired to tutor a group of students they’d be paid $30.43 an hour.
“They are giving up their planning time, covering those shortages, saving the day when we don’t have a substitute,” she said. The board approved her request to increase their hourly pay to $30.43.
The public-comment portion of the meeting was lengthy. An overflow crowd had shown up to the fairly small meeting room at 400 N. Elm St., and numerous people had to wait and watch in a second room. Several people complained about the crowding.
Superintendent Risha VanderWey later told the Four Corners Free Press that future meetings will be moved to a larger space.
“We didn’t realize there was going to be an overflow,” VanderWey said in a phone interview. (See article on Page 5.) “It’s a valid concern for people. We want to give them a comfortable opportunity to sit and watch.”
Linked with CRT and BLM?
The topic of critical race theory (CRT) elicited a number of comments. CRT is a subject generally taught at graduate-school level, but it has become a rallying cry for some on the right, who say it is now being taught in K-12. A conservative nonprofit called the Center for Renewing America, for instance, (americarenewing.com) states that CRT is a form of Marxism and “in order to revitalize the American spirit and restore our great nation, this far-left ideology must be defeated.”
Tiffany Ghere, a local citizen who organized the motorized Montezuma County Patriots parades on Saturday mornings in Cortez, told the board that the current school curriculum “is linked with CRT and Black Lives Matter.”
“The same people that stood on our streets with signs saying defund the police . . . are sitting in this room and that overflow room,” Ghere said. “If that does not grab your attention, what will? If they are here to support this curriculum you’d better ask yourself why.”
Another woman (names cannot always be heard by people listening to the meetings via Zoom) said the Wit & Wisdom® curriculum used in K-8 levels in local schools is “basically a toolkit for indoctrinating children with radical left-wing ideology.”
“We killed the Cortez Language Club contracted through the United Nations, we need to kill this Wit & Wisdom,” she said, also saying that uncontrolled kids are having sex and trying to kill each other in the hallways.
One woman said CRT “is actually a Marxist doctrine,” continuing, “I believe it has no place in our schools. It is designed to pit human beings against each other…. by embracing racism.”
Another woman compared the curriculum to Nazi propaganda. “One race became the oppressor [in Germany] because of the science,” she said. She also said children as young as first grade are being programmed with sexuality.
Yet another said CRT “instills hate, racism, demonizes our history – putting down our forefathers, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.”
But Susanna Deane, who teaches writing and social studies at Mesa Elementary School, said she certainly isn’t teaching CRT to her third-graders. “They aren’t ready for that. I don’t know why the huge panic,” she said.
Forrest Kohere, a teacher of English language arts at CMS, told the board that the school-board priorities and the anti-CRT resolution are among teachers’ main concerns because of the possible negative impact to the recently adopted curriculum.
He described the time and effort that was taken to vet possible curricula before this one was adopted and approved by the board.
“The amount of work to teach a new curriculum should not be underestimated,” he said. “To come back in the fall and find the board putting together a committee to possibly remove our curriculum was devastating.”
He said teachers “want to continue teaching our curriculum without fear we will be forced to start all over.” He asked that in the short term, the board acknowledge that the curriculum was adopted according to policy and refrain from stating that it contains CRT without actually defining the term.
In the long term, he said, teachers would be happy for people to continue examining the curriculum, if there is a committee that reflects the demographics of the school community. If they find any elements of CRT, the staff would be glad to work to eradicate those, he said.
There was a large contingent of CMS teachers at the meeting, and his remarks were met with sustained applause.
During their discussion about the CRT resolution, board President Sherri Wright said the purpose of the resolution was actually “to say race doesn’t matter, everybody will be treated the same.” She later said, “This is saying we’re going to treat every student in an unbiased manner.”
Schuenemeyer, who was present via Zoom, argued that the resolution should not be approved prior to consultation with the district’s attorney because it relates to discrimination and needed legal examination, which it did not receive. He also said CRT is “nothing we have taught or ever taught” in the Re-1 district because it is basically presented in graduate school.
Wright said a story used in third grade indicated white men think they are superior to African-Americans.
Schuenemeyer said teachers he has talked to think the resolution is designed to “eliminate or reduce diversity in our school system,” and “remove positive contributions made by people of color.”
“That’s what I hear, he said, adding, “This is a waste of time and money. Teachers know how to look at curriculum.”
But Wright said she had responded to that concern by removing one bullet point from the original resolution after meeting for three hours with members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The deleted bullet point said, “Neither schools nor instructors shall assign individuals or groups of students to participate in class or complete assignments based on their racial identity.”
The Utes felt this would restrict their students from identifying themselves by their culture, she said.
“Now we are allowing them to have the diversity they thought we were trying to eliminate,” she said.
Board member Sheri Noyes said if there is no CRT being taught in the schools, there should be no problem with passing the resolution because it shouldn’t affect anyone.
“We are not trying to get rid of any culture, diversity, anything like that. . . . Nobody should apologize for anything, nobody should blame anybody for anything that happened eons ago, years ago,” Noyes said. “It shouldn’t still be in our schools today.”
But Wright said that the board isn’t trying to erase history. “You still learn the bad. History is good and history is bad. We have to learn from it.”
The board plans to move ahead with a re-examination of the current curriculum that will be done by a committee.
Furor over the Lunch Bunch
The topic of the students’ lunchtime meeting also brought forth numerous comments. The group that meets at lunchtime on a weekly basis at CMS is called the Lunch Bunch, though it is often referred to as the Rainbow Club. It’s an elective school club with approval to meet from the school administration and is supervised by faculty and staff advisors.
It has long been viewed with disfavor by parts of the community, who have made posts on social media criticizing its existence.
However, in an Aug. 26, 2020, letter that was sent to a number of schools, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote that any student organizations intended to combat harassment of LGBTQ students must be treated “the same as any other noncurricular club at your school.”
A previous member of the Re-1 board, Lance McDaniel, was recalled in February of this year for reasons vaguely expressed in the official recall petition. He had been widely criticized on social media for bringing pizza to the Lunch Bunch, though he actually met with them only one time.
The Sept. 21 meeting agenda included an item in which lunch time would be declared to be instructional time rather than non-instructional, which would mean clubs of any type couldn’t meet then.
Tiffany Ghere told the board on Sept. 21, “Gay pride does not need to be taught. LGBTQ2 does not need to be taught to an 11-year-old, a child who has not had a period, not had a first kiss – maybe does not need to be taught about their sexual identity. They don’t even need to know what is pangender.”
Ghere added, “There is no transparency in this club, it needs to be gone. . . . Do it off the school grounds, after school hours. . . . This has no place in our schools.”
The Lunch Bunch is not defined as specifically for LGBTQ students but is intended to give a safe space to any students feeling a need for support.
Katy Maxwell, who works for Colorado National Suicide Prevention Program at the Montezuma County Health Department, offered a different perspective on the Lunch Bunch. She told the board the Friday meetings “are a resource and a tool for LGBTQ students.”
Maxwell said this is needed because suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people in ages 10 through 24, and Montezuma County has a high rate of youth suicides.
She said LGBTQ youths seriously contemplate suicide at a rate almost three times that of heterosexual youths and are five times as likely to have attempted it. Suicide attempts are 8.4 times higher for LGBTQ students who have families that reject them than LGBTQ students whose families aren’t rejecting towards them.
“This why a space like the Friday Lunch Bunch is essential for preventing suicide and saving young lives in our community. Everyone deserves help and support and these students are no different,” Maxwell said.
Lance McDaniel also addressed the board, saying, “If you’re going to remove the term ‘non-instructional time’ from the policy that doesn’t change the fact that lunch is still non-instructional time.”
He indicated misinformation had been spread about his involvement with the club.
“You know as a board that I told you every time I went to the Rainbow Club,” he said.
Oct. 29, 2019, was the only time he actually went in the classroom, he said, “yet you continue to hear how I went to several meetings. It’s total crap. I hope you think about some factual information when making your decisions.”
He said he’d recommended board members listen to some of the kids in the club, but none of them had.
“It’s a lunch hour for middle-school kids, for crying out loud,” he said. “They come in, eat, talk to each other. There is no instruction, no sexual education, yet you believe that crap coming from those people’s mouths.”
And Susanna Deane said critics of the club “are treating those children like they’re abhorrent creatures. . . trying to not allow them to meet, act like they are different creatures. . . . Instead of going by so much hatefulness in the community. . . can we just support them and love them?” she asked.
The board did not make a decision about declaring lunch time as instructional but will take it up in a future discussion.
All the discord at the Re-1 meetings comes at a time when Cortez has made the national news in a negative way. The Wall Street Journal in September examined local disputes in an article headlined, “Political divisions in Cortez, Colorado, got so bitter the mayor needed a mediator.”
The article describes how “this community of 8,700 became racked by tensions over politics, race and Covid-19.”
The article is at https://www.wsj.com/articles/political-divisions-in-cortez-colorado-got-so-bitter-the-mayor-needed-a-mediator-11632648602?mod=flipboard. (It should be noted that the Wall Street Journal has a paywall.)