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State announces plans to investigate Cesar Chavez School Network

Click here for Commissioner Jones's Letter

In an unusually hands-on move, the Colorado Department of Education has agreed to hire independent auditors to look into the finances and testing practices of the Cesar Chavez School Network, which has charter schools in Pueblo and Colorado Springs and one opening in Denver.

Citing the importance of protecting the integrity of the state's educational accreditation system and the taxpayer money that funds Cesar Chavez schools, Education Commissioner Dwight Jones stated in a July 2 letter that audits would move forward in cooperation with Pueblo City Schools and the Charter School Institute, which charter Cesar Chavez schools.

Apparently, the three will also share the costs. The Pueblo City Schools Board voted unanimously July 2 to pay up to $80,000 toward the investigation.

"I'm not exactly sure how it's been divided up," board president Stephanie Garcia says. "All of this really kind of transpired on Friday, so the details are kind of sketchy."

CDE spokesman Mark Stevens says no firms have been selected yet, and there is no set timeline or projected cost for the investigations.

The Cesar Chavez School Network, which is led by founder and CEO Lawrence Hernandez, has lately been plagued by accusations that it's helped students cheat on Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, and that it mismanages its finances and overpays its executives. In fiscal year 2007-8, Hernandez made $220,629 plus a $41,103 benefit package, more than the leader of the nation's largest school district, the New York City Department of Education. (For more on the backstory, visit csindy.com and search under "Cesar Chavez.")

Hernandez defends his salary and denies most of the other accusations, which have come predominantly from Pueblo City Schools, but also from a past student and employee.

Normally, the responsibility to investigate any wrongdoing at a charter school falls to its district. But this was a special case, Pueblo City Schools representatives claimed, because Hernandez refused to cooperate with them when they tried to address problems. And when just-departed PCS superintendent John Covington made his case to Jones, he agreed to help with an investigation.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, says such an investigation is rare, and adds that she doesn't expect it to lead to any major changes in the way the CDE interacts with charters, or to laws governing charters.

"I think it's pretty much an anomalous situation," she says.

CDE board member Peggy Littleton downplays the state intervention, saying it amounts to little more than a district and its charters "having a difficult time playing well in the sandbox together."

Others are less dismissive. Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, says he often hears from constituents who are upset about violations by charter schools and haven't been able to get help from their school district or the state.

"When a district has concerns and is doing their best to do what's right for the students, and they're not getting a response, it's the state's responsibility to step in," Merrifield says, adding that he hopes the investigation might signal tighter CDE oversight of schools in the future.

Hernandez could not be reached this week for further comment.

stanley@csindy.com

Click here for Commissioner Jones's Letter

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