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The first bricks fall from the Cesar Chavez empire

The gym at Dolores Huerta Preparatory High in Pueblo heaved with violent energy the evening of Friday, Sept. 25: screaming insults, roaring chants, drowning boos, even a slight scuffle.

It could have been a McCarthy-era political rally, or a Brazilian soccer game.

But a school board meeting?

The Cesar Chavez School Network once controlled charter schools in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver. But its leadership team has been crumbling spectacularly. And on Sept. 25, the network board removed founder Lawrence Hernandez as network CEO; his wife, Annette Hernandez, as chief operating officer; and Velia Rincon as the just-appointed head of the online GOAL Academy. The three will assume yet-to-be-defined leadership positions in Pueblo's Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez Academy schools.

The board also accepted the resignation of chief financial officer Jason Guerrero, although Guerrero will stay in the position until the results of an independent audit on the network's financial practices is finished. The board agreed to work with the state's Charter School Institute in any subsequent actions. It did not appear any schools would close.

GOAL board president Bob Mestas was one of several high-ranking employees who spoke out against Hernandez to start the meeting, only to inexplicably appear hand-in-hand with Hernandez and his team following an executive session hours later.

"I don't think either camp is particularly happy," Mestas said a couple days after the meeting. "I equate it with having a meeting with gasoline all over the floor and a lot of people with matches lit in their hands."

The board's dramatic meeting ended an eventful week. Days before, Hernandez had changed the locks at GOAL Academy's offices, denied teachers and staff access to the online curriculum, fired the school's top two administrators and forced staff to sign a loyalty pledge to him or "resign." The move sent the school into chaos and GOAL's independent board — which Hernandez called "illegitimate" — was forced to meet at Maggie Mae's Restaurant & Pub.

Shortly afterward, Colorado Commissioner of Education Dwight Jones expressed his dismay in a stern e-mail. Then, apparently, state officials ordered Dennis Feuerstein, chair of the network board, to remove the network's executive team, or the state would revoke GOAL and Cesar Chavez North's charters. Feuerstein responded by unilaterally putting the Hernandezes and Rincon on paid administrative leave.

At Friday's meeting, Tony Dyl, senior assistant attorney general, read off various allegations his office is exploring related to Hernandez and the network. Dyl said it appeared Hernandez misused GOAL money to fund other schools, staff trips and his own salary, even as GOAL's student-to-teacher ratio greatly exceeded contractual agreements. Dyl also said it appeared Hernandez recently tried to transfer GOAL's students to Dolores Huerta and grab state money attached to the pupils.

The state is currently conducting the head count that determines annual school funding.

Hernandez countered that Dyl was part of a conspiracy to "steal" GOAL — a charge Dyl called "bizarre," since GOAL is a public school, not owned by Hernandez.

Saturday, the GOAL board met again, rehired the two administrators fired by Hernandez and clarified that all GOAL employees worked for it now, not the network.

Yet many details are still unclear. Who owns GOAL's curriculum and computer systems? Who leases the buildings where GOAL and North are housed?

"I think progress was made," Alex Medler, CSI board president, said earlier this week. "It's a little too early to say in the long run whether it was enough progress."

stanley@csindy.com

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