From left, Dr. Peggy Brewer, Ruben Sanchez and Nicole Austin decide Thursday night to accept the resignation of Superintendent Tom Burris. Mona Kirk and Arturo Ibarra, not pictured, also approved the resignation agreement, tendered a little more than a week after the 2017 school board elections. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)
Just nine days after school board elections, Superintendent Tom Burris has resigned with more than a year left on his contract and will be on paid administrative leave until his effective June 30 resignation date.
At a special meeting of the Roswell Independent School District Board of Education Thursday night, board members came out of an hour-long executive session with district lawyers and announced to a packed room of about 60 people, primarily school district employees, that they would vote on Burris’ resignation, his paid administrative leave effective Feb. 16 through June 30, and the appointment of Susan Sanchez as acting superintendent.
The five members of the board, Dr. Peggy Brewer, Arturo Ibarra, Mona Kirk, Ruben Sanchez and Nicole Austin, voted unanimously to approve all three motions.
“This is the only comment or statement from the board,” Brewer said as she read the following written notice:
“RISD Superintendent Tom Burris has announced his resignation from RISD. Citing a desire to spend more time with family and his eligibility for retirement, Burris entered an agreement with the RISD Board of Education that will make his resignation effective June 30, 2017. From now until that date, Burris will remain on paid administrative leave. Burris’ contract was scheduled to last until June [auth] 2018.
“An acting superintendent will be assigned by the board to oversee the district between now and June 30, 2017, and Burris will work with the board and the acting superintendent to ensure a smooth transition and that all district services continue without disruption.
“The board is grateful for the service Mr. Burris gave to the district, and we wish him well in his future endeavors.”
One person clapped at the announcement, but there was little other audible reaction from the audience. The board room in the Administrative and Educational Service Center on North Kentucky Avenue and the parking lot quickly emptied following the announcement.
A former employee had said before the announcement that people were told that they would want to attend the meeting, which had been announced and posted Monday.
A teacher union representative said he thinks the district responded to the will of voters.
“We believe the voters of Roswell have spoken and educators voted,” Greg Maxie, UniServ director for the National Education Association of New Mexico, told the Daily Record Thursday night. “Their voices were heard, obviously by the current board as well as the new board. We think it’s a great time for transition. We look forward to supporting the (acting) superintendent and working for the success of the school district, and we’re hoping to have a positive working relationship to move the district successfully for students.”
Tamra Gedde, a Roswell High School science teacher who had spoken publicly about difficulties in the district and wife of newly elected board member Alan Scott Gedde, said after the meeting that she was happy that Sanchez was named acting superintendent.
“She is a strong leader, a good leader,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from her.”
Sanchez is now assistant principal at Roswell High School, having once served as assistant superintendent of instruction and curriculum. She will receive an additional $30,000 on top of her current contracted salary to be acting superintendent for the next four months.
The Feb. 7 school board elections had been viewed by many as a call for change.
Voters chose to replace Brewer, a longtime educator and school board president, and an appointed member, Ibarra, with two new members, including Alan Scott Gedde, a youth minister, and James Edwards, the Career Success coordinator at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. Both Gedde and Edwards had said during pre-election forums that they did not think Burris was performing well.
Burris’ critics have cited low teacher morale; concerns that teachers have been punished if they spoke openly about problems; difficulty recruiting qualified teachers (24 teacher openings were listed on the district website Thursday); and a “C” school district grade in 2016 from the New Mexico Public Education Department, up from a “D” the year before.
Burris’ supporters said he had forged good working relationships with state education officials, which paid off in terms of grants and money for the school district, that he had overseen successful efforts to secure taxpayer-approved bond money for school building projects and that he had navigated the district through significant changes in curricula and student testing methods that had affected school and student performance.
Hired in July 2012, Burris had a current three-year contract that was due to run through the end of the 2018 academic year. He was paid $149,907 a year as the top administrator of a district with about 10,300 students, 21 schools and 1,200 employees, including 600 licensed personnel.
Under the voluntary resignation agreement, Burris will receive all accrued vacation and sick pay and will continue to receive all benefits and pay due him through June 30. He has agreed not to seek re-employment with the district for at least five years.
The agreement also said that he will continue to assist the board during the transition and that he will not seek any other public employment during his administrative leave. The contract calls for board members not to comment on his performance and for Burris to refrain from commenting about the board.
Harry “Tom” J. Burris joined RISD after serving as superintendent in Truth or Consequences. He replaced Michael Gottlieb, who retired June 2012 after eight years in the position. Burris was one of 25 people and six finalists considered for the position and was viewed as the top candidate by unanimous choice, according to board members at the time.
He began his education career as a high school math teacher in Farmington in 1976, after having graduated from Albuquerque schools in 1972.
Staff writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Bethany Freudenthal contributed to this story.