Nearly five hours of emotional, often angry, comments Friday (Sept. 25) about the Cesar Chavez Schools Network in Pueblo depicted an organization in chaos, complete with allegations of financial misdoings, teachers bullied into signing loyalty oaths and principals pressured to enroll more and more students until class sizes hit 45.
“When did we become about money and not about the students?” a visibly upset Rich Mestas, principal of the network’s Dolores Huerta Preparatory High, asked schools’ founder Lawrence Hernandez in front of hundreds gathered in the high school gym. “You have told me to enroll, over and over, our class sizes are 45 students … You have worked us to the bone and we are tired of it.”
There were suggestions of cronyism as well. Davine Martinez, a member of the network board, charged Friday with deciding the fate of Hernandez and his wife Annette, is Annette’s secretary. Another board member, Luke Gradishar, owns a uniform store that outfits Chavez students.
“Luke, c’mon man, these people helped you start your business,” Annette’s brother, Joe Cordova, said at one point, imploring Gradishar not to fire the couple, who run the network serving 2,500 students in Pueblo, Denver and Colorado Springs on a budget of $30 million, financed largely by state tax dollars.
Cordova also turned to board president Dennis Feuerstein, who had placed the Hernandezes and another administrator, Velia Rincon, on paid administrative leave on Thursday after they locked teachers and students out of the network’s online school, GOAL Academy.
Feuerstein, who was with Lawrence Hernandez when Hernandez told GOAL teachers last week that they must sign loyalty oaths or lose their jobs, called placing Hernandez on leave “the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life.”
“You yourself have asked Dr. Lawrence Hernandez for a job, sir,” Cordova told Feuerstein, who is an insurance agent who handles some policies for the network. “Many times. Several times. Is this the reason, because he wouldn’t hire you? You wish to go ahead and demean him and demoralize him?”
There were even, in true Jerry Springer-like fashion, restraining orders in play. Earlier Friday, Mestas and Feuerstein had obtained temporary restraining orders against the Hernandezes and several of their family members – Lawrence’s father, Marion, also is athletic director at Huerta – who were upset about the couple being placed on leave.
Those orders were lifted for Friday’s board meeting, attended by a dozen Pueblo police officers.
By meeting’s end, the nine-member board opted not to fire Lawrence and Annette Hernandez. Instead, they demoted them, relieving them of their jobs, respectively, as chief executive officer and chief operating officer of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network.
Lawrence, instead, will become executive director of the network’s two original schools in Pueblo, the Cesar Chavez Academy, a K-8 school, and Huerta High School, across the street from Chavez. Annette will work with those two schools as well, though her title – and the couple’s salaries — was not defined.
Interviews on Saturday and Sunday, however, make it clear that some do not believe the demotions go far enough.
Unless ties with Lawrence Hernandez are completely severed, one teacher said Saturday, “Dr. Hernandez is never out of the picture … Yesterday resolved nothing.”
Alex Medler, chair of the state Charter School Institute board, said he expects the board will move ahead with revoking the charters of two of the Cesar Chavez schools – GOAL Academy and the Cesar Chavez Academy campus in Colorado Springs.
“All indications are there certainly are grounds for revocation, based on events,” Medler said Sunday. “Locking out the teachers in a school? I’d revoke that charter, safe to say.”
Locked out, loyalty oaths
The online GOAL Academy began as a program within Huerta in 2007 and branched off in fall 2008 as a separate academy.
It serves an estimated 500 students statewide this fall and many teachers work out of offices in malls in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Westminster. Students also work from there, meeting with teachers and completing tests and lab work during typical mall hours – 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Last Monday, teachers across the campuses began having trouble logging in to their instructional program about 2 p.m.
In Pueblo, Steve Neumann said he was working with a student when he overheard other teachers say they were getting error messages telling them they did not exist in the system. He soon got his own.
Teachers began texting and calling each other to figure out what was going on. Neumann said they were told, “All instructor and administrator logins have been deactivated by Dr. Hernandez.”
Security guards from the Cesar Chavez Schools Network showed up soon afterward, stationing themselves by front doors and calling in locksmiths to change the locks.
“Nobody knew what was going on,” Neumann said. “And then people began to call in.”
The Pueblo Chieftain was reporting online that Ken Crowell and Kris Enright, GOAL’s top administrators, had been fired for insubordination.
“Staff were packing their personal belongings in boxes to make sure that they were not locked away from their personal possessions,” Neumann recounted. “Bookshelves of personal books were packed up, photos taken down, posters rolled up.”
About 4:30 p.m., all teachers were told to report to a mandatory meeting with Hernandez the next morning in Pueblo. They were also told not to talk to the press.
“Staff were frustrated because they were unable to enroll students in classes, or help their students who had come in for help,” Neumann said. “Everybody was concerned some big mass firing was going to happen.”
They were also fielding calls from students who couldn’t gain access to their lessons, and from parents who had heard news reports.
Tuesday morning, students were told to leave the GOAL offices – “We had at least 10 students working that morning and they were literally kicked out of the lab and locked out. Gate closed and all,” said secretary Jessica Fahmie.
Lawrence Hernandez told all GOAL staff members – teachers, counselors, security – at the meeting that they needed to sign “a loyalty statement” to the Cesar Chavez Schools Network by the end of the day, several teachers said.
If they did so, their online access would be restored and they would receive keys to the new locks.
“He stated that without the loyalty letter, we would be terminated and that we were ‘at will’ and he could terminate us at any time,” said teacher Melissa Colussi.
Later that afternoon, Velia Rincon, who had been appointed to replace Crowell, sent out an email to staff saying the letters were due by 4:30 p.m. “or she would consider it our resignation.”
Frances Giron, a special education teacher, signed a letter at 4:15 p.m., she said, “in order not to lose my employment. It was written under duress.”
She and other teachers began getting online access back the next day, Wednesday, about 3 p.m.
Meanwhile, after the meeting with Hernandez, 36 GOAL Academy staff members signed a letter sent to the State Attorney General’s Office detailing what they had been told to do and asking for help.
Thursday, Feuerstein placed Lawrence and Annette Hernandez and Velia Rincon on paid administrative leave. He said he had been called by state officials who told him that he needed to take action.
“I had only a few hours to act and I did that for the salvation of the school,” Feuerstein said. “They told me … this board needs to take control. We need to know that you have control.”
GOAL money as motive?
GOAL teachers say they were told by Hernandez that he had to fire Crowell, the former head of Pueblo’s alternative high school, and Enright, who once ran the Branson Online School, because they were conspiring to take GOAL from the Chavez network.
Hernandez made those accusations publicly on Friday, accusing Crowell and Enright of conspiring with Randy DeHoff, the executive director of the state Charter School Institute, and with Assistant State Attorney General Tony Dyl to steal GOAL.
“These are the people who are going to start the audit on us, guys,” Hernandez told the crowd, referring to an upcoming financial audit by the Colorado Department of Education. “The very people that are now accusing us are the ones that are corrupt.”
He described DeHoff, a State Board of Education member, as “corrupt” and termed Dyl “one of the most unethical people I have ever seen in my life.”
Dyl called the allegation of stealing GOAL as “bizarre” and said indicators point to a different motive – money.
“No one has any interest in stealing anything,” he said. “It appears to me money from GOAL Academy is going to fund programs at other schools.”
Specifically, he said it appears GOAL funding is being diverted to other Chavez network schools and to the “excessive” salaries paid to Lawrence and Annette Hernandez and the network’s chief finance officer, Jason Guerrero.
IRS documents show the combined salaries of the three topped $644,000 in 2007, the most recent year for which the records are available.
Dyl said the budget line for GOAL’s principal jumped from $67,000 to $453,700 in one year.
“We have reasonable belief that it was Dr. Hernandez’s attempt to move his entire salary for the network onto GOAL’s budget,” Dyl said, “and may indicate why such drastic actions to prevent scrutiny of his school’s business operations were considered warranted.
He said Hernandez, on Monday, ordered employees at Huerta to “grab” student files from GOAL and enroll them in Huerta.
In addition, Dyl said, an employee was told to post the GOAL curriculum on the Huerta web site, an apparent attempt to count GOAL students in Huerta’s enrollment for state funding purposes.
Other concerns cited by Dyl included:
- “Excessive” fees charged by the Chavez network for handling administrative services, with some documents indicating 30 percent to more than 50 percent of GOAL’s budget was paid to the network.
- Rent payments for GOAL offices in Pueblo were late, lagging by months. So were students’ Internet fees, which GOAL is supposed to pay for poor families.
- Grants to GOAL were being used by other network schools, including travel by some Huerta staff members.
“At the same time this was happening, GOAL was being told it was unable to hire teachers due of a lack of funds,” Dyl said, “and had a 65-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio where the contract with CSI (the state’s Charter School Institute) required a 25-to-1 ratio.”
Keven Lewis, a mentor and school security officer at GOAL’s Pueblo offices, said Hernandez told him and two others that, “GOAL Academy has to stay with CCSN (the Chavez network) or the whole network collapses.”
“Why, if all accounts are supposed to be separate?” Lewis asked.
A principal speaks out
On Saturday, GOAL Academy teachers clapped and hugged when their own newly-formed governing board passed bylaws, elected officers and approved a contract with the Charter School Institute.
The GOAL Academy board, which Hernandez had declared was “illegitimate,” can now decide whether to work with the Chavez network for administrative services – or find another entity.
Several teachers, apparently still shaken by the school’s recent shutdown, repeatedly asked the new board to clarify who is in control.
“To clarify, this board is in charge of GOAL Academy,” said board member Heidi Carey.
Added board member Greg Millard: “You do not work for Lawrence or Annette. You work for us.”
The board also restored Crowell and Enright to their jobs, which moved many of the dozen teachers who had waited hours to witness that action to tears.
GOAL is the second Chavez school to seek its own freedom; Cesar Chavez Academy in Colorado Springs also has created its own board.
If the Charter School Institute revokes those schools’ charters, it may make the Chavez network unhappy but probably not the two schools’ leaders because it would solidify their independence.
Denver Public Schools officials on Friday issued a press release saying the newly-opened Chavez academy there is run by an “independent” board, though it is still part of the Chavez network governed by Feuerstein and his board.
Lawrence Hernandez said Friday that his demotion means, “I’ll have nothing to do with the network, I’ll have nothing to do with the Denver school, with the Colorado Springs school, with the GOAL Academy.”
“Their boards can figure it out,” he said. “I’m just CCA (Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo) and DHPH (Huerta high school).”
It’s unclear exactly how he, his wife and Rincon – who also is being sent from the network to the two schools – will fit in with the staffs there.
Huerta also has a principal, Mestas, who openly criticized Hernandez before Friday’s crowd. So did Jodene Muniz, director of grades 3 through 5.
As Friday’s marathon meeting wore on, Mestas walked into the gym with two dozen Huerta, CCA and GOAL Academy staff members behind him.
“I would like to speak on behalf of my colleagues and my staff that work here and are the real reason why our students are successful,” Mestas said. “They are, not Lawrence Hernandez.
“He takes the damned credit and he takes the money and we take furloughs,” he said. “You know what? No more.”
Muniz said the vision that made Cesar Chavez Academy a great school got lost somewhere along the way, pushed aside by the desire to enroll more students – and get more money for them.
“I have text messages that say, if you’re not going to enroll, then I’m going to enroll for you,” she said.
But an hour or so later, after Feuerstein and other board members met in private with Hernandez and individual staff members, Mestas and Muniz emerged hand in hand with the Hernandezes. Feuerstein then announced the couple would not be fired.
“He’s not rational,” Mestas said of Hernandez, in an interview with Ed News before the hand-holding.
He hadn’t planned to address Hernandez, he said. That afternoon, Mestas had obtained a restraining order against Hernandez and several of his family members, after they came to Huerta and forced Mestas to apologize to two network board members, Davine Martinez and Julie Wilson, among others.
The couple was angry that Mestas had tried to keep them away from the schools after Feuerstein placed them on leave.
“Annette calls me and … she asked me, several times, it’s either Lawrence and myself or Dennis, who are you loyal to?” Mestas recounted. “I said, ‘The kids,’ and she didn’t like that answer.”
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or 303-478-4573.