Chavez School Turmoil Highlights Charter Issues

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A battle over the future of Colorado’s Cesar Chavez Schools Network, plagued by recent management problems and financial scandal, has created uncertainty in one of the state’s most successful charter school groups.

The Pueblo-based network, which operates schools in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and Denver, has been under intense scrutiny for months. The state department of education has audits under way to examine Chavez’s finances and concerns over whether proper protocols were used in the administration of the state’s standardized tests.

But tensions have escalated in recent weeks, with the firings of school principals, temporary school closings, and restraining orders filed against the network’s founders, who have been accused of bullying school employees.

Lawrence Hernandez, Chavez’s founder and chief executive officer, and his wife, Annette, the chief operating officer, were removed from their network leadership positions during a contentious Sept. 25 meeting of the network’s board.

That action came after a week in which school leaders were fired by Mr. Hernandez and students and teachers of the network’s online program found themselves locked out of coursework while an argument raged about who controlled the school and its records.

The infighting became intense enough that the network’s board president and high school principal received court restraining orders against the Hernandezes.

'Crazy Accusations'

Mr. Hernandez said reports about controversy are riddled with falsehoods and “crazy accusations” by people attempting to capitalize on Chavez’s success.

“This is about people seeing what we have created as an opportunity for their own personal advancement,” he said. “You fire people who are not doing their job and then you get questioned on your management style. You hold people accountable for what they are supposed to do, and they say they are getting harassed.”

The dispute has also focused attention on the crucial role—and management capacity—of charter authorizers, the entities responsible for approving the charter and overseeing them.

“I would be surprised if it wasn’t used as a rallying cry to try and gather some forces to try and rethink how chartering is done,” said Van Schoales, the urban education program officer for the Denver-based Piton Foundation, which works on quality-of-life issues for low-income Coloradans. “It’s sort of a textbook example of bad management.”

High-Profile Schools

The Chavez schools have garnered praise in recent years, and Mr. Hernandez was invited to the White House in 2007 by former President George W. Bush, who highlighted the schools’ work in closing achievement gaps among Hispanic students.

Much of the recent friction has centered around growing moves toward independence by two Chavez-created schools, which were authorized under the auspices of the Colorado Charter School Institute, a statewide charter school authority affiliated with the state department of education.

The institute authorizes charters in places where school districts and charter operators have had difficulty getting along, or where the district doesn’t have sole jurisdiction over authorizing charter schools.

In this case, the institute had authority over the online GOAL Academy high school and the Colorado Springs-based Cesar Chavez Academy-North, a K-8 school.

The institute and network agreed to a memorandum of understanding that would create independent boards for the online academy and for the Colorado Springs school. The two boards would then be able to decide whether to continue an operating agreement with the Chavez network, said Alex Medler, the institute’s board chairman.

But after making the agreement, Chavez leaders started doing things that made honoring the agreement difficult, Mr. Medler said. Amidst the dispute, two administrators from GOAL Academy were fired. The pair were later re-hired by the academy’s board.

Reporting to so many boards, Mr. Hernandez said, is a time-consuming situation that has caused him to spend less time on the day-to-day operations of the schools.

Mr. Medler said the institute’s staff is preparing a report on the incidents and whether to revoke the charters of the online academy and the Colorado Springs school.

“Those are all serious problems in the operating of a school,” he said. “We have to make hard calls if that is necessary.”

The institute, he said, is concerned about “safeguarding” the students at each school and making sure their education is not hurt.

“One key point is we are identifying a problematic situation that I think is not representative of the charter school movement in the nation or Colorado,” Mr. Medler said. “You don’t want to create knee-jerk policies that get in the way of great innovation.”

State Concern

Concerns over the turmoil led Dwight D. Jones, the state’s education commissioner, to release a statement Sept. 23 reminding school officials that destroying student records is a violation of state and federal law. Rumors were circulating that documents related to the online school were being shredded or otherwise disposed of.

“We will continue to work in close coordination with the Charter School Institute in gathering all the facts. Taxpayers, parents and the community at large expect a full accounting of GOAL Academy’s business and enrollment,” he said in the statement.

Mr. Medler said the Chavez situation shows the need for transparent boards that have clear authority to hold charter school operators accountable.

Building strong authorizing capacity and ability is crucial, especially since it is not a natural role for school districts, said Jim Griffin, the president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. Having strong boards that promote transparency and bring strong governance is also helpful, Mr. Medler said.

“I think the vast majority [of charter operators] are genuinely interested in the kids. They will have conflicts between what’s good for their growth and what’s good for the kids in their schools sometimes,” he said. “The boards can be a partner in their weakness.”

Mr. Schoals, who is also a member of the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ board, said that when a charter management organization has schools with multiple authorizers, as does Chavez, a process should be in place to ensure clear lines of communication are open among the authorizers, he said.

And in the case of Chavez, the network and the Pueblo school district have had a oft-contentious relationship, which led to sympathy at times being extended to the high-performing schools, said Mr. Schoals.

“There was an understanding the school district had a strong financial interest in making sure the school didn’t grow and thrive,” he said. “Sometimes it was hard to tell what was true. There was no honest broker about what was going on there.”

Vol. 29, Issue 06

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An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Van Schoales, the urban education program officer for the Denver-based Piton Foundation.

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