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Hernandez down but not out at Chavez

PUEBLO – An emotional five-hour meeting ended Friday with Lawrence Hernandez out of the top job at the charter schools network he founded but still in control of the original Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo and its sister high school, Dolores Huerta Preparatory High.

But that control will be limited in one aspect – he won’t be able to fire anyone without the approval of the network’s governing board.

“We’ve made some major, major accomplishments tonight,” Dennis Feuerstein, president of the board of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network, told the audience gathered in Huerta’s gym.

Details of the resolutions approved by the board Friday include:

  • Lawrence Hernandez and his wife Annette stepped down from their roles as chief executive officer and chief operating officer of the network, which governs five schools in Pueblo, Denver and Colorado Springs.
  • Lawrence will continue as executive director of CCA and Huerta and his wife also will continue in some capacity, though Feuerstein said her title is not yet decided.
  • The board accepted the resignation of Jason Guerrero, the network’s chief financial officer. They then re-hired him as a temporary board employee to assist in the upcoming state audit of the network’s finances.
  • The board pledged to review the salaries of “all parties concerned,” which drew applause from the audience. Hernandez, his wife and Guerrero have drawn criticism for combined salaries topping $644,355 even as their schools endured cuts.
  • The board agreed to work cooperatively with the Charter School Institute, which holds the contracts with two of its schools – the online GOAL Academy and Cesar Chavez Academy in Colorado Springs.

The institute’s governing board has asked its staff to consider revoking those charters because of events at Goal Academy earlier this week.

That’s when Hernandez effectively shut down the school, Colorado Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl told the audience, by changing the locks to its building and cutting off teachers and students’ access to their online curriculum.

But many of the hundreds of people in the audience were staunch Hernandez supporters and they responded to Dyl’s claims with cat-calls and boos.

More than a dozen speakers in the public comment session that opened the packed meeting spoke in favor of Hernandez and his wife.

They called out “We love you Doc” – Hernandez has a doctorate and prefers to be addressed as Dr. Hernandez – and yelled out “back-stabber” to Feuerstein, who until this week has been a vocal Hernandez advocate.

Thursday, Feuerstein placed Hernandez, his wife and another administrator, Velia Rincon, on paid administrative leave. Friday night, he said he did so because state education officials pressured him to show the board was in control.

He said he was told that the network could lose all five schools if he didn’t take corrective action against Hernandez, his wife and Rincon.

A few speakers on Friday said the board must remove Hernandez if he’s done anything wrong but even mild questions about Lawrence and Annette Hernandez drew the wrath of the audience.

Dyl, recounting the concerns of the Charter School Institute about the network, was frequently drowned out by boos and exclamations of disbelief and dismay.

Dyl cited financial questions, among others, including the fact that the salary line item for GOAL Academy’s principal grew from $67,000 one year to $453,000 the next.

It appeared, he said, that Hernandez might be charging expenses to GOAL from other schools across the network, draining the online school’s accounts.

Several times, Feuerstein had to caution the audience to quiet down as they shouted down Dyl.

Hernandez responded by claiming Dyl and some members of the Charter School Institute staff were going behind his back to create an “illegal school,” or a GED component of GOAL, that would siphon students and their funding from the Chavez network.

“This is just inappropriate,” Dyl said. “Those allegations are ridiculous.”

Finally, Rich Mestas, Huerta’s principal, and two dozen members of Huerta High School, Cesar Chavez Academy and GOAL walked into the gym as a group and Mestas took the microphone.

“When did it become about money and not about the students?” Mestas asked Hernandez, then gestured to his teachers. “You have worked us to the bone and we are tired of it.”

Mestas turned to the audience and told them that his staff, not Hernandez, deserved the credit for the success of the school.

“He takes the d—ed credit and he takes the money,” Mestas said, turning back to Hernandez. “How could you do this to us?

“No one wants to talk because they’re afraid,” Mestas added. “For three years, I’ve been afraid of this man.”

Angry supporters of Hernandez drew close to Mestas and one grabbed the microphone. Pueblo’s police chief, one of nearly a dozen police officers working the meeting, walked up quickly to Feuerstein and he called for a break.

Sit down everyone, take a breath, Feuerstein told them, and then board members and Hernandez retreated to a private room.

When they emerged nearly an hour later, Feuerstein was smiling and Rich Mestas and Lawrence Hernandez walked out with arms linked.

Feuerstein read off the hand-written resolutions, all approved unanimously by the nine-member network board.

“We’re up here and we’re like a family,” Hernandez told the audience. “We are here for one purpose and that is for our children.”

He apologized for some of his earlier comments and said that he, and other leaders, had lost sight of their original mission over the years.

“We have grown so big that it’s become hard for us to keep our vision,” he said. “We are going to bring it back together.”

It’s unclear if the network board’s resolutions will be enough to ease the concerns of the Charter School Institute board or of some teachers angered by Hernandez’s recent actions.

The CSI board has called an emergency meeting for Saturday.

Margot Devita, director of student support services at the GOAL Academy, said teachers and students who were locked out of their school last week deserve an apology.

She’s still angry about the fact that Hernandez fired the school’s top administrators and then demanded staff members sign an oath of loyalty. She refused to sign.

It also was unclear Friday whether those two administrators – Ken Crowell and Khris Enright – will be re-hired. Feuerstein said that was not decided in the board’s private meeting.

The GOAL Academy board also scheduled an emergency meeting Saturday in Colorado Springs.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-458-4753

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