Lawrence Hernandez opened a charter school in a vacant building in a rundown Pueblo neighborhood in the fall of 2001 and, soon afterward, school board members began hiring security guards for their public meetings.
“It was very scary,” Pueblo City Schools board member Kitty Kennedy said of the meetings where Hernandez led in hundreds of angry parents and their sometimes crying children to support his school as tensions with the district escalated.
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“Because even though I felt, knowing Lawrence as well as I do, that he was going to just take it to a certain level,” Kennedy, then the board’s president, said, “the greater fear was, what if someone else threw the first punch or picked up the first chair and he lost control of what he was doing?”
Hernandez, the vocal founder of what is now known as the Cesar Chavez Schools Network, with a fifth campus opening this month in Denver, no longer stacks school board meetings with his sign-waving supporters.
But the animosity that has marked the relationship between the Pueblo school district and the charter school since its opening has not cooled. In 2004, Hernandez publicly accused Kennedy and Joyce Bales, the first Pueblo superintendent on his watch, of lying and said, “their despicable actions are matched only by their arrogance and stupidity.”
In 2006, when Bales’ successor, John Covington, showed up at the original Cesar Chavez Academy campus on one of the first days of school, staff there called police.
And when Covington left Pueblo this summer to become superintendent in Kansas City, Mo., one of his last acts was a plea to state Education Commissioner Dwight Jones to investigate “allegations of cheating and of financial abuses” at the Chavez network. “It’s the extreme nature of the situation with that particular school that has convinced the state to become involved,” said deputy education commissioner Ken Turner. “It’s extraordinary.”
Outside Pueblo, Cesar Chavez Academy has largely been known for its impressive test scores, which earned Hernandez a visit to the White House and a spot in a PBS documentary about schools closing the achievement gap between white and minority kids.
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Within the city, however, the school and its outspoken leader have long been a source of controversy.
“If you say your kid goes to Cesar Chavez Academy, either they say ‘Wow, that’s a great thing’ or ‘We hate you,’ ” Hernandez said. “That’s the reaction our parents get in the community.”
“Their despicable actions are matched
only by their arrogance and stupidity.”
Feelings about Hernandez himself also run high. Some refused to comment publicly, citing his proclivity for filing lawsuits. Others are blunt.
“I hope he goes to prison,” said Linda Resendez, a former Chavez governing board member and parent who wound up on the wrong end of a defamation lawsuit filed by Hernandez.
An investigation by Education News Colorado found critics’ concerns typically focus on three areas:
Testing – As early as 2002, a Cesar Chavez Academy teacher wrote letters to district officials questioning the school’s testing practices. Pueblo leaders may not have taken her concerns seriously because she had been fired by Hernandez. But in 2005 and in 2008, district leaders themselves contacted the Colorado Department of Education about testing concerns.
Lawsuits – In little more than eight years, Hernandez has initiated at least a dozen legal actions, from a restraining order against a former kindergarten teacher to a lawsuit against, among others, the state of Colorado. He has sued former parents and teachers, former governing board members of his own school, the Pueblo school district, the Pueblo school board, the State Board of Education, the state Charter School Institute and a Pueblo community activist who publicly criticized him.
Money – Less than a year after Chavez opened, school district leaders hired an outside auditor to review the school’s spending practices when a majority of the charter school’s five-member governing board complained Hernandez was not giving them accurate information. He later sued all three. More recently, critics circulated IRS records showing the increasing six-figure salaries paid to Hernandez, his wife Annette and school finance chief Jason Guerrero even as they cut teacher pay.
“At this point in my life, I say, who cares what they say about me?” Hernandez, 45, said in a recent wide-ranging interview at his Pueblo campus. “I am who I am. I’ve made a ton of mistakes in this business. We’ve done things wrong, we’ve not followed rules when we were supposed to follow rules. But look at what we’ve done, look at how we’ve changed so many kids’ lives.
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“Their perception has always been that I am a radical loose cannon, out of control,” he said of school district leaders. “They have no sense of why we do what we do.”
Cesar Chavez’ reputation is built largely on its high test scores, results which have repeatedly been brought into question.
“This is like the nth time this has happened,” Hernandez said last month in response to the most recent complaint. “Some disgruntled employee, somebody we fired, or a student loses their standing, and they go make a complaint.”
On Jan. 29, 2002, a kindergarten teacher named Kathie Arwood wrote a letter to Pueblo school board members in which she said she believed Hernandez helped his daughter pass a class reading test.
She was fired, Arwood wrote, when she questioned the results that made the girl No. 1 in her class.
“If Lawrence Hernandez will coach his daughter and give her an advantage that no other student received, and then declare her the top student, what will he do when it comes to putting school results on the line?” she asked. “Will he also behave in this manner when testing and reporting the test results to you the board and the public in order to make his school appear what it is not?”
A week later, Hernandez filed a restraining order against Arwood.
“I’ve made a ton of mistakes in this business…But look at what
we’ve done, look at how we’ve changed so many kids’ lives.”
Arwood said she wrote a second letter when state test results showed 85 percent of third-graders that spring were reading at grade level. She was suspicious, she said, because teacher testing earlier in the year showed few students achieving at that level.
Other teachers said staff worked hard on reading and they saw no evidence of cheating.
“Our first block, from 8:12 to 9:42, every teacher was teaching reading,” said Anthony Vigil, a former music teacher who did double-duty as a reading instructor.
It wasn’t until 2005, after Chavez became the first Pueblo school to see 100 percent of its third-graders reading at grade level, that district leaders began to investigate.
John Brainard, then the district’s testing director, spent several months looking into allegations he said he received from a handful of parents and a test proctor at the school that third-graders were being called back in to finish their reading tests or to reconsider their answers.
Brainard contacted the state Department of Education and both he and former state testing director Beth Celva traveled to Indianapolis to look at the school’s exams in a test scoring facility there.
They found 42 of the 68 test booklets had notable changes or erasures, many resulting in higher scores, Brainard wrote in a report submitted to the Pueblo school board.
He said he met with Hernandez and his attorney to discuss the concerns and Hernandez requested time to respond to questions. But Brainard said he never received a response. In addition, Brainard wrote in his report, “At this meeting, the representatives from CCA indicated that they would not sanction or support my talking with the 3rd grade students or parents concerning the administration of the CSAP reading test.”
Hernandez ridiculed the report and told the Pueblo Chieftain that the erasures were the result of the school’s writing method.
“We teach the Collins Method,” he said. “Students are taught to either skip lines and edit their writing or to erase and that’s what our kids did.”
He claimed that the school was cleared by the state, though Turner said that’s not technically true.
Rather, “Nothing conclusive was found after reviewing scanned test items,” Turner wrote in an email.
In 2008, Brainard’s successor, Robert Vise, contacted the state about concerns that high numbers of Chavez students were receiving testing accommodations typically granted to students with special needs.
In response to a request from Ed News, the state released data showing more than half the students at Cesar Chavez Academy received extra time or other special accommodations when they took state reading and math tests in 2007 and 2008. (Click here for story about 2009 testing questions and here for story about prior years’ testing issues.)
Hernandez said Vise incorrectly told his school testing director to report accommodations that students never received.
“I think he was just ignorant and didn’t know the rules,” he said of Vise.
The state’s recently announced audit of Chavez will include its testing practices.
The audit itself is unusual for the Colorado Department of Education, Turner said, adding, “We determined the district really needed help and didn’t have the tools needed.”
Chavez had been open for five months when Hernandez sought a 30-year extension on its charter. Pueblo school board members balked and attorneys entered the fray between the district and the school.
Since then, the legal meter has seldom stopped running. “The beginning of our contentious relationship with the district was that year – 2002 – they decided to do a bond issue and this school wasn’t included,” Hernandez said. “They said, oh no, you guys don’t count, you guys aren’t important, you guys don’t matter.
“And I said, no, no, no, I don’t think that’s the way the world works. These kids have as much right to that bond money as anyone else … so we started using the law at the very beginning.”
A retired judge arbitrated a settlement that knocked the 30-year extension down to ten and gave Chavez control over $2.1 million of the district’s $99 million, November 2002 bond issue, which voters ultimately approved.
Hernandez was back in court a year later suing his own former board members and, in 2004, he again filed suit against the Pueblo school district. Between 2005 and 2008, the Chavez schools filed four lawsuits against the district and its board members as they fought over building dollars for the charters.
“Litigation seems to be Dr. Hernandez’ business model,” said Kennedy, the school board member, who tells a much different story of the initial bond dispute.
Guerrero disagrees with the total litigation count by Ed News, arguing several actions may stem from a single case. He also pointed out that litigation made up the smallest portion of the network’s legal expenses in 2008-09, which totaled $152,375.72.
But Hernandez makes no apologies for his use of the courts.
“I think it’s crucial that charters are willing to use the law and to change laws on behalf of providing more opportunities for low-income kids, for Latino kids … to have school choice,” he said. “We’re talking about changing the laws to create opportunity and that’s the only way it’s going to come about.”
As an example, he cited a case that Chavez schools are asking to be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court which “could change the whole landscape for charter schools.” The case involves a 2004 vote by the Pueblo school board to pay $900,000 in bond dollars to Chavez’ high school, Dolores Huerta Preparatory High. The board reversed its decision, an arbitrator said it should pay anyway and the State Board of Education ruled the arbitrator’s decision wasn’t binding.
Chavez appealed to the state appellate court, which ruled a charter school had no standing to sue the district or chartering authority that oversees it.
If the state Supreme Court sides with Chavez, “it means that when chartering agencies don’t follow the law, charter schools have the authority to sue them,” Hernandez said. “It means that districts can’t just exclude charter schools from their bond issues.”
Some lawsuits filed by Hernandez appear more personal than precedent-setting.
In 2003, he sued four former Chavez governing board members, a parent and a community activist after they publicly questioned his spending practices, test results and the hiring of relatives at his school.
“It was a scare tactic,” said Resendez, one of the board members sued. “That’s basically what it was – keep your mouth shut.”
She hired an attorney she couldn’t afford, she said, and got the claims against her dropped. Another board member declared bankruptcy. The activist, Alvin Rivera, has counter-sued, accusing Hernandez of trying to stymie his free speech rights and demanding he pay attorneys’ fees and damages.
The case, now six years old, is set for trial in November.
“The name of the school was being tarnished,” Hernandez said of the suit against Rivera and his former board members.
He said such actions are necessary to protect the network and pointed out it recently won a $50,000 award in a lawsuit filed for breach of contract against a vendor.
Resendez learned about Cesar Chavez through newspaper ads, when Hernandez first began recruiting families interested in the school.
“I always admired Cesar Chavez,” she said, “and I thought, wonderful, a school where Hispanics can go and learn … my son, he’s adopted, and I want to give him all the opportunities I can.”
Hispanic students in Colorado have long lagged their white classmates on state exams. In 2001, for example, 51 percent of Hispanic third-graders were reading at grade level compared to 81 percent of white third-graders.
Anthony and Ramona Vigil also liked the mission that Hernandez touted for his school.
“We had a good feeling about it,” Ramona Vigil said. “We were completely sold on the mission … of educating a diverse population.”
Both Vigils joined the school in its first year as teachers – Anthony taught music, Ramona reading – and they enrolled their son.
What the Vigils and Resendez said, however, is that they gradually began to believe Hernandez’ primary focus is financial.
Resendez, who served first on the school steering committee and then its governing board, said she was shocked when Hernandez requested a raise for his wife – and then cursed at board members who questioned her qualifications.
Annette Hernandez (right), the school’s chief operating officer, does not have a bachelor’s degree though she has completed classes at several colleges.
“From then on, he decided they were going to get rid of us,” Resendez said. “We were not going with his plan, which was being agreeable with him.”
The governing board then had five members, including Hernandez. Hernandez and another board member sought to disqualify two of the others. So Resendez and the other two board members went to Pueblo district leaders, who launched a management audit in the summer of 2002.
The upshot – Hernandez was demoted to non-voting board member status and Chavez was told to clean up some financial practices. Resendez retained her board seat but soon left, citing a “brutal” atmosphere.
She also removed her son from the school, saying he was harassed after Hernandez told students that the boy’s mom was trying to shut it down.
“He’s very charismatic,” Resendez said of Hernandez. “Then you really start listening to him. Then you think, boy, I don’t think that’s true.”
The Vigils left Chavez last summer and went to work for Pueblo district schools, prompting a lawsuit from Hernandez. He claims the couple, who created a mariachi program at Chavez, used confidential information to help the district create a rival program.
They flatly deny the allegations and have refused a motion by Hernandez to dismiss the suit unless he pays their attorney’s fees, which now total more than $40,000.
The pair described their first years at Chavez in glowing terms and said they developed a friendship with Lawrence and Annette Hernandez through their preschool-aged daughters.
They made signs to hold up at school board meetings and picketed against demonstrators led by Rivera, the activist, against Hernandez.
“We were totally supportive of him in all of this,” Ramona Vigil said. “We were there to back him.”
But about two years ago, as their fledgling mariachi group began to win awards, the Vigils said the relationship changed. Ramona Vigil said Hernandez told her that she was responsible for fund-raising $30,000 a year for the group.
“We started seeing that it was geared toward money now, it wasn’t about kids,” she said. “Even the parents started feeling that. They were really starting to pressure me as to, Where did my daughter’s money go for this candy? Where did my help go that I put into selling at Cesar Chavez Day?”
“We started feeling the kids were becoming a marketing tool for the school,” Anthony Vigil said. “It was like, how can you make us money? Where can you make us money?”
Big salaries, expensive house
Ramona Vigil said she had heard, but ignored, whisperings about the Hernandez’ lifestyle. Then one of their daughters brought in the plans for the family’s new home. Property records show the house, built in 2007, is valued at $644,799.County records list the 2008 median home value in Pueblo at $138,361, or about $90,000 less than the state average.
“That just kind of raised some questions in our mind – OK, is this about their personal money?” Ramona Vigil said. “Or what’s happening here?”
In May, critics angered by cost-cutting measures at the Chavez schools began circulating copies of federal forms showing Hernandez, his wife and Guerrero earned more than $644,000 in salaries and benefits from the schools in 2007-08.
Hernandez, who started out in 2001 earning $82,690 in salary and benefits, made $261,732 in 2007-08, according to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Between 2005-06 and 2007-08, the most recent year filed, his total pay increased 53 percent.
In addition, Pueblo district records show Hernandez received more than $46,000 in bonuses during the past two years.
“He’s very charismatic. Then you really start listening to him.
Then you think, boy, I don’t think that’s true.”
“I never thought of it as a major issue,” Hernandez said of his compensation, which tops that of Colorado school superintendents leading districts with 30 to 40 times as many students.
Besides, his board sets his pay, he said, and that of his wife and Guerrero.
But Resendez and her colleagues are not the only Chavez governing board members to complain about a lack of financial information. In 2005, Chavez board treasurer Edmund Vallejo complained in a letter to the board’s president that he had not received requested documents such as balance sheets.
“I have received nothing,” Vallejo, a former Pueblo schools superintendent, wrote to Dennis Feuerstein, who is still the Chavez board president. “It gives one pause to wonder why not?”
Feuerstein himself has come under fire by critics for doing business with the network he helps govern. An insurance agent, he handles what are commonly called “key man” insurance policies for Hernandez, his wife and Guerrero.
The policies, more common in private industry than the public sector, essentially protect a business if a key executive dies or leaves. Hernandez said the network pays $20,773 annually for his policy, $16,953 for his wife as chief operating officer and $15,973 for Guerrero as chief finance officer.
The policies pay out $500,000 per person to the school if one of the three dies and a percentage of what has been paid into the policy, based on years held, if one of them leaves.
“The funds would be available to do a national search and help to replace them,” Feuerstein said, “and funds would not have to be taken from our general fund.”
He was selected as the insurance agent by competitive bid, with the attorney’s approval, in 2007, he said, adding that he recused himself from voting on the issue.
Hernandez seemed frustrated by the focus on the salaries, noting he cashed in his retirement from Harvard to start the school.
“If the board wanted to give me a raise, I would absolutely refuse,” Hernandez said. “Why, because look at the kind of scrutiny it has brought us.
“I mean, honestly, I have teachers who come to me and say, all the time, gosh, my brother sells cars and he makes five times as much as you do, Dr. Hernandez.”
He said that he, his wife and Guerrero took four days of furlough in 2008-09 – alongside their teachers.
‘Long time coming’
In July, Pueblo school board members agreed to pay up to $80,000 for their share in the costs of an independent audit of Chavez testing practices, its operations and fiscal management.
The Colorado Department of Education and the state Charter School Institute, which oversees a Chavez school in Colorado Springs, also will pay part of the costs.
Turner said no completion date is set for the audit.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Kennedy. “It will hopefully drive questions about what is and isn’t legal and, also, what is and isn’t moral and ethical behavior for a publicly funded institution.”
Hernandez said he also welcomes the audit, though it may expose some early mistakes.
“Our very first year, I used to carry around the school checkbook in my back pocket,” he said. “Somebody would say, I need X, Y and Z and I would say OK. And at the end of the month, like my personal checking account, I would see if we had any money left in the account.
“I mean, we really didn’t know how to do this stuff. But we knew the educational piece.”
Enrollment in his schools has grown from 329 kids on a single campus in fall 2001 to 2,171 students enrolled in four schools and an online program in fall 2008. The original Chavez campus has seen its share of growing pains – test scores have declined though they typically top Pueblo district averages.
And Colorado’s new progress tracking system shows student academic growth in reading, math and writing at the original school is lower than the statewide average.
“I really think we’re still doing great things,” Hernandez said. “But we know all the bad decisions. I mean I could tell someone everything not to do to start a charter school.”
He is “worn down from the hostile working environment” in Pueblo, he said, but sees little hope of healing the relationship, save the election of a new school board and a new superintendent.
“Jason, Annette and I are all kids of steel workers – we are all kids of steel workers going up against a system, a people whose parents have run the community for 100 years,” he said. “And they said, no, no, no, this is our community, we run the show. And that’s been our lives for the last eight years.”
Kennedy, who spent most of her 25-year teaching career in high-poverty schools, said one of the toughest aspects of the years of fighting with Hernandez has been his frequent depiction of the district as opposed to the success of poor minority children.
“Yes, we’re trying to do our due diligence and we’re trying to have oversight. We’re trying to be protective of children and the taxpayers’ dollars,” she said.
“But he seems to create and capitalize on the fear factor. He seems to keep the focus on the external adversary or the external threat. He sets up opponents.”
“Collective fear of a rival or an enemy makes it easier to control the group for your own ends,” she said. “How about half a million dollars in salaries?”
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.