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Talking back 

Cesar Chavez CEO Lawrence Hernandez responds to allegations

The man behind the Cesar Chavez School Network is crying foul.

In a phone conversation with the Independent, network founder and CEO Lawrence Hernandez paints himself and his staff in sympathetic tones. He calls himself the victim of hostility and bias, despite what he considers a high level of quality and transparency in his operation. And, he says, his charter school network is surviving because of parents who trust his schools and ignore negative headlines. He says 3,000 children will attend his schools in 2009-10.

"Parents don't keep their kids in bad schools," Hernandez says.

The Cesar Chavez School Network has charter schools in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, and one opening in Denver. Recently, the network has been criticized for high executive salaries and bonuses. Evidence also surfaced showing inconsistencies and questionable practices in administering the Colorado Student Assessment Program test at Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo ("Leader or cheater?" News, June 4). A former CCA student and her mother has claimed the child had been instructed to cheat on the CSAP ("Rewriting on the wall" News, June 25).

Pueblo City Schools superintendent John Covington has sent a letter to state Education Commissioner Dwight Jones requesting an investigation. Jones is expected to respond this week, according to a Department of Education spokesperson.

Though the Indy has written three news stories on the burgeoning controversies, attempts to reach Hernandez at his office had proven futile. Hernandez, who posted a message last week at csindy.com, says his office is not always staffed in summer, and he never received the messages left on voicemail.

Speaking from his cell phone, Hernandez first addresses the CSAP issue and denies any cheating.

"Our staff, I believe, have the highest level of integrity," he says, "and they follow the procedures to the T."

Hernandez notes that every staffer must sign a document agreeing to follow the rules, and says he's invited representatives from Pueblo City Schools and the Department of Education to observe the testing multiple times. But Pueblo City Schools District Assessment Coordinator Robert Vise denies ever having been invited by Hernandez. State spokespeople say only individual districts should oversee testing.

Despite his best efforts, Hernandez says, he is plagued regularly by accusations of cheating. Sometimes it's the district, he says, other times it's a disgruntled parent, former employee or child who's been kicked out of the school.

"This is sort of an annual event for us," he says.

Regarding salaries, Hernandez defends them. In particular, he says he deserves his — in 2007-8 he earned $220,629 plus a $41,103 benefit package — because his job is "highly politicized," and complex state and federal laws have him constantly jumping through hoops. He adds that though more than $250,000 in bonuses were paid in June for the 2008-9 school year, no bonuses would be paid in 2009-10 because of budget constraints.

Hernandez downplays other concerns, including accusations of nepotism, and rumors that his school board members are financially connected to the schools through contracts. He does not deny the latter claim, but says board members reveal conflicts of interest and recuse themselves when appropriate. As for the family members, Hernandez says he employs a handful, but denies any favoritism.

"That's who started the school, was my family," he says.

stanley@csindy.com

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