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Leader or cheater? 

Questions about testing, salaries and more surround region's Cesar Chavez school network

After schooling at Stanford University and teaching at Harvard University, Lawrence Hernandez returned a conquering academic hero to his working-class hometown of Pueblo. In 2000, he embarked on a journey to create a school marked by both its extraordinary diversity and opportunity.

Nearly a decade later, Hernandez has it all. Five schools in his Cesar Chavez School Network. A diversity of apparent scandals. And plenty of opportunity for his own financial gain.

This year, Cesar Chavez will close one of its two Colorado Springs charter schools. Cesar Chavez Academy (CCA) Central won't open next fall due to low enrollment and the poor condition of the structure at 1131 N. Union Blvd. But there will be room for new students at the K-through-8 Cesar Chavez Academy North (3115 Larkspur Drive), and at the other network schools: the original K-through-8 Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo, Dolores Huerta Preparatory High in Pueblo, the new Cesar Chavez Academy Denver, and the online GOAL Academy.

In the past, parents languished on waiting lists before enrolling their kids in Hernandez's schools. Regularly recognized for excellence in serving mostly low-income kids, Hernandez's schools earned a nod from President George W. Bush in 2007 for "closing the achievement gap." The Chavez network was considered innovative, even inspiring.

Is it? Here are some things to consider before enrolling your kid.

Possible CSAP abuses

Cesar Chavez schools in Pueblo are part of Pueblo City Schools (PCS). Elsewhere, they're members of the Colorado Charter School Institute. All of them, like most public schools, are assessed to a large degree on students' test scores.

Robert Vise, PCS executive director of assessment and technology, says he stumbled upon some eyebrow-raising information regarding the 2008 Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) test scores at Pueblo's Cesar Chavez Academy. According to data Vise received from the state, more than 60 percent of the Academy's 684 third- through eighth-grade students were given special accommodations for the test, such as extra time to complete it. These accommodations normally are afforded only to children with established physical or developmental disabilities.

All 220 students in fourth and fifth grades were given special accommodations in the test's reading portion, Vise says, and all but two also received special accommodations on the math portion.

"I've never had a whole grade level at a school have accommodations," Vise says.

The figures were jarring, particularly because Vise's own records suggested a small fraction of the children had qualifying disabilities, and a significant number were actually classified as being "gifted."

Vise delivered the information to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), which informed him it didn't have an investigative division to pursue the issue. It transferred his documentation to two CDE staffers, but no one at the state ever followed up. Last week a CDE spokesman said the department had no information about alleged testing inconsistencies in the Chavez network.

Colorado State Board of Education member Peggy Littleton says the state does its best to make sure tests are honest and accurate, but it's up to school districts to investigate any scandals.

John Brainard apparently tried that once. In 2005, Brainard, then the Pueblo district's director of assessment and research, documented four phone calls from concerned parents of CCA third-graders, all relating the same story: Their children said CCA staff had brought them into a "CSAP review" following the test, and encouraged them to change some answers.

Along with staff from CTB-McGraw-Hill, CSAP's creators, Brainard was allowed to examine written answers on CSAP reading tests for Chavez's third-graders. Although no one ever accused the Chavez kids of cheating, significant erasures or changes were found in 62 percent of the tests, and some new answers appeared to be done in different handwriting.

Despite the evidence, the test results were never revised. Brainard's requests to talk to more parents and kids were thwarted when Hernandez intervened, telling families he would be the sole contact on the inquiry, according to a report Brainard wrote. Hernandez apparently agreed to answer Brainard's questions, according to Brainard's documentation, then never responded. Time passed and the test results were certified.

More than NYC money

In fiscal year 2007-2008, Hernandez brought home $220,629 in salary plus a $41,103 benefit package. His wife, Annette, who serves as chief operating officer, made $107,457 plus a $27,369 benefit package. Chief financial officer Jason Guerrero made $212,569 plus $35,228 in benefits. All of that to run a five-school network that had 2,171 students in 2008.

Departing Pueblo City Schools superintendent John Covington, who manages 36 schools and about 18,504 students, makes $185,710 with $9,600 in benefits. Colorado Springs School District 11's new superintendent, Nicholas Gledich, oversees 59 schools and his base salary is $180,000.

Then there's Joel Kline, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the nation's largest school district. Kline oversees more than 1,500 schools, 1.1 million students, 136,000 employees, and a $21 billion operating budget. He's salaried at $250,000 a year, less than the value of Hernandez's annual package.

Recently, an anonymous letter to media outlets accused the Chavez network of cutting benefits and bonuses to staff, as well as forcing staff to take furloughs without pay, to forgo raises and to attend a mandatory training meeting without pay.

Calls to Cesar Chavez seeking comment were not returned. In the May 29 Pueblo Chieftain, Hernandez confirmed employee pay cuts and not paying attendees at a mandatory meeting. Hernandez said top administrators, including himself and his wife, were also taking cuts. He defended his salary, saying it was set by the network's board and adding, "What I've been through the last nine years, there is no amount of salary that can compensate for that."

Of course, a bonus might help. And in 2008, Chavez paid nearly $150,000 in bonuses. Hernandez got $22,278.90. His wife received $12,154. Guerrero got $25,620.74. Most staff members received $3,000 or less, if they got a bonus at all.

Other conflicts

Hernandez has money for other needs. Like handing out gift cards and conducting raffles for cars to lure more students into his Pueblo schools before the state student head count that determines state funding to schools. He did that last year ("Life takes Visa," News, Dec. 11).

Appalled, Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, pushed through a law banning such incentives in public schools.

"It'll basically prevent any public school from bribing kids to come to their school," Merrifield says.

Hernandez also had enough dough in his wallet to sue PCS and a community group that opposed him. In one of his most publicized legal actions, Hernandez sued Pueblo City Schools and the Colorado Department of Education five years ago, accusing them of underfunding Dolores Huerta, and demanding $900,000 for a building. In April, the Colorado Court of Appeals decided in favor of PCS and CDE. Hernandez's attorney apparently plans to appeal. PCS has spent $31,745.80 defending itself in the case.

Hernandez also filed suit against members of a Pueblo community group in 2005. The group questioned Hernandez's business practices, including hiring family members. After many delays, and settlements by all but one defendant, that case will be heard in the fall.

stanley@csindy.com

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