Colo. Charter Dispute Stirs Oversight Issues
Riven by Firings, Infighting, Noted School Network is Challenge for Authorizers
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 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 while an argument raged about who controlled the network’s online 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.
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 and overseeing charters.
“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 ofbad management.”
The Chavez schools have garnered praise in recent years, and Mr. Hernandez was invited to the White House in 2007 by 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.
In this case, the institute has 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 to 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 with the Chavez network, said Alex Medler, the institute’s board chairman.
But after making the agreement, Chavez leaders started doing things that make honoring the agreement difficult, Mr. Medler said. Amid the dispute, two administrators from GOAL Academy were fired. They were later rehired 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 to help the board decide whether to revoke the charters of the two schools.
“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.”
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.
Vol. 29, Issue 06, Page 8Published in Print: October 7, 2009, as Colo. Charter Dispute Stirs Oversight Issues Charter Schools Scrap Centers on Oversight