State: Cesar Chavez “squandered taxpayer money”

An audit released Wednesday of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network depicts rampant nepotism, unchecked credit-card spending and total pay topping $300,000 for top executives – even as teachers faced furlough days and budget reserves dipped below legally and contractually required balances.

Lawrence and Annette Hernandez, the co-founders of the original Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo, a school once lauded by President Bush, hired at least 20 relatives between 2000 and 2008, auditors said, as they expanded the single campus to six and spread into Colorado Springs and Denver.

At one point, Lawrence Hernandez held six credit cards on school accounts and used them to pay the cell phone bills for two of his stepchildren, the audit found, though most of the money was later reimbursed. It also said his wife’s stepbrother, a member of the network’s governing board, received more than $140,000 one year in school contracts for his janitorial and lawn service.

“The leaders of Cesar Chavez School Network squandered taxpayer money, ignored basic legal requirements, overcompensated senior staff, engaged in nepotism and failed to provide accountability over the resources entrusted to them,” state education Commissioner Dwight Jones said in a statement accompanying the audit’s release Wednesday morning. “The results demand swift action.”

Hernandez, who with his wife was fired in October from the network they founded, said the audit is “completely full of blatant falsehoods, lies, inaccuracies.” In fact, one page of the audit refers to his wife’s stepbrother as having a conflict of interest because of his board service and janitorial company while another page refers to the man as her brother-in-law.

“I don’t put any credibility whatsoever in the document they created,” Hernandez said. “The inflammatory language that the commissioner used in his press release – it’s clear that it’s very personal and an attempt to detract from the fact our state hasn’t made any academic improvement under his tenure.”

Hernandez said he has lodged a federal complaint against Jones and other state education officials for “consistent and widespread racism” and is suing Chavez board members for unlawful termination.

The son of a Pueblo steelworker, Hernandez earned a doctorate in education from Stanford and taught at Harvard before returning to his hometown to open the first Chavez school in 2001. He sold his recently built home after his firing, moved to Denver and is now “doing everything you can think of to make a living,” he said Wednesday.

Pueblo officials have turned the audit over to prosecutors and will cooperate with the Internal Revenue Service, said Stephanie Garcia, president of the Pueblo City Schools board, which holds the charter for the original Cesar Chavez Academy, a K-8 school, and Dolores Huerta Preparatory High, another network school.

“The apparent magnitude of egregious misappropriation and mismanagement of the public’s money is shocking,” Garcia said. “We will be examining all legal remedies at our disposal to address the inappropriate actions of those responsible for this obscene abuse of taxpayer monies.”

Donielle Gonzales, recently named president of the Chavez network governing board, told reporters during a brief afternoon press conference that leadership at the schools has changed and the board recognizes concerns raised in the audit should be immediately addressed. See story here.

The 193-page financial and organizational audit was completed by MGT of America, a California firm hired in December by Pueblo City Schools, the Colorado Department of Education and the state Charter School Institute. The three groups commissioned the audit after years of rumors of financial misdoings, various media reports of high salaries paid to top Chavez executives and, in June, a plea from departing Pueblo City Schools Superintendent John Covington to Jones to investigate the network.

Though the financial audit only covers the period of July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009, the findings “raise enough questions that additional scrutiny is warranted,” Jones said, encouraging the IRS and the local district attorney to consider possible expansion to other years.

“For a charter school to spend money so freely on non-student needs – at a time when the school knew that formal oversight was getting underway – strongly suggests that a more detailed audit is in order,” the commissioner said.

Among key findings in the audit:

— Lawrence Hernandez received total compensation of $339,732 in 2008-09, including base salary, additional pay, bonuses, mileage and retirement benefits, while chief operating officer Annette Hernandez, his wife, received $201,215. Chief finance officer Jason Guerrero received $321,585.

The base pay alone of the three “greatly exceeded the average” in a salary survey conducted by the Charter School Growth Fund, the audit found, and network officials initially underreported the salaries to the state by more than 20 percent. Consider that Lawrence Hernandez’ base pay was $239,908 to run up to six schools that year while Tom Boasberg, who runs Denver’s 140 schools, was paid $180,000.

— Five of the six schools had 26 credit cards issued to 17 people in 2008-09 who rang up a total tab of $399,402.08. Lawrence Hernandez is listed as the cardholder on six cards while his wife had two. But Guerrero, the CFO, said the cards were not necessarily used solely by the cardholder because schools allowed employees to “check out” the cards to make purchases and did not adequately track who was using the cards.

Among the charges cited as concerns by auditors was $133,079.33 in travel, including $279 per night plus $32 per day valet parking at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans, and nearly $1,000 in cell phone fees for Annette Hernandez’ son and daughter. Auditors said it appeared the network billed Lawrence Hernandez for many of the children’s cell phone charges but that no other employees had the option of charging family members’  fees to school credit cards and that, in some cases, repayment came several months later.

— Included in the 20 relatives hired by Lawrence and Annette Hernandez were his father, her mother, her father and stepmother, along with brothers, a sister, in-laws, an aunt, nephews, a niece and cousins. The total pay for the ten relatives on the Chavez payroll in 2008-09 was $186,818.03 for jobs such as coach and classroom aide. Auditors charted the relationships on page 72 of the report.

In addition, the auditors cite several potential conflicts of interest with board members, including Annette Hernandez’ stepbrother, who received five janitorial and lawn contracts totaling more than $140,000 in 2008-09, and a board president who received more than $61,000 in school funds for his insurance and limousine businesses that year. Both board members have stepped down.

Lawrence Hernandez angrily denied the allegations in interviews on Wednesday, saying he believes Jones and Pueblo district officials are guilty of “corruption” as well as racism.

Lawrence Hernandez listens to comments at a Sept. 25 public meeting in Pueblo. He was ousted from the Cesar Chavez network the next month.

He said he was contacted by someone from MGT after their report was completed and that he was told by the person that “I’m basically going to write what they tell me to write.”

“It’s basically a write-up that they paid for,” he said. “Really, what’s the purpose? I’m no longer employed at the school.”

Hernandez and Cesar Chavez Academy were lauded in the school’s initial years for high test scores, earning them an invite from the White House as a school successfully raising achievement for its mostly Latino students. He began expanding with the Huerta high school in 2004.

But the outspoken schools founder also has battled with Pueblo district officials for years, exchanging barbs in the media and lawsuits in the courts. He has also sued the state of Colorado, former parents and teachers, and a community activist who publicly criticized him for, among other things, nepotism.

That activist, Alvin Rivera, recently was awarded attorneys’ fee in the case – seven years after it began.

State officials agreed to investigate claims of cheating on state tests and allegations of financial abuses in July and, in October, Hernandez and his wife were ousted by the Chavez network board. Guerrero, the CFO, has submitted a resignation effective in June.

Of the six schools that once fell under the Chavez network, one has closed and two have severed all ties. A fourth school, Cesar Chavez Academy in Denver, is operated by an independent governing board that contracts with the network to provide administrative services such as accounting.

Ryan Lucas, the director of the Denver campus, said the school is paying 8 percent of its per-pupil operating revenue, or $193,556, to the Chavez network this year. But he said the school has asked the network to return half of that amount because it is not providing the agreed-upon services.

The network did not fill the spots vacated by Hernandez and his wife and it announced a $1.5 million shortfall in November. The audit found that, as early as February 2009, the network board was worried enough about money that it authorized furloughs for teachers and other staff.

It also found that, for the fiscal year that ended June 30, CCA in Pueblo was more than $200,000 short of the 5 percent fund balance required by debt agreements with its bond issuer, the Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority. And Huerta high school did not have the emergency reserves required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights or TABOR.

Lucas, in Denver, said the school had to hire another dean and shift responsibilities to cover the gaps left in the services that were supposed to be provided by the network. George Solorzano, the president of the Denver school’s governing board, said the network has not yet responded to its refund request.

Solorzano said the board also has sought estimates of costs from other vendors for similar services and will decide by May 30 whether to end the annual contract with the Chavez network.

Lucas said reports emanating out of Pueblo have sparked uneasy questions from parents and he takes pains to assure them of the separation. Third-graders at the high-poverty school outperformed district averages on their first state exams, with 60 percent reading at grade level.

“I say to them, what happened in Pueblo stays in Pueblo,” Lucas said of his talks with parents. “That’s why we have our own independent board.”

Pueblo’s school board will consider revoking the charters for CCA and Huerta, which are not up for renewal until 2012 and 2014 respectively, said district spokesman Greg Sinn.

Pueblo Superintendent Kathy West has assigned administrative staff to the two schools for “support” all day starting Monday and through the end of the school year, said Garcia, the board president.

“We want to make sure instruction is still happening in the schools and the students’ days are not disrupted,” she said.

Gonzales, in a written response included in the audit report, said the board already is working to address many of the concerns raised, including the adoption of clear conflict of interest and nepotism policies. She also said all credit cards were discontinued in October 2009 and will not be reinstated.

An audit of testing practices at Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo, released in December, found “excessively high” numbers of test-takers were given extra time to complete state tests though there was no conclusive evidence of cheating. Wednesday, state officials said the school had submitted an acceptable plan for the spring testing cycle.

Concerns about irregularities at the Chavez network were at least partially responsible for legislation introduced this session by House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, which sought to allow an outside entity to intervene in a charter school in emergency situations. But that’s been revised to propose an appointed commission study issues of charter school and authorizer standards for a year.

Garcia believes it may take changes in state law to prevent a recurrence of what’s happened at the Chavez network.

“The whole idea behind charters is to give them the necessary waivers and to give them the freedom to extend their day, extend their year, to be creative in curriculum and not let statutes or contracts hold them back,” she said. “But at the end of the day, this is still taxpayer money and there needs to be accountability for those funds …

“It’s very sad that it has all come to this,” Garcia said, “but they brought it on themselves.”

Click here to see the financial audit. Read the state Department of Education press release here, the Pueblo City Schools’ press release here and Lawrence and Annette Hernandez’s press release here. And see prior coverage of Cesar Chavez schools here.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.