The cramped headquarters of the Cesar Chavez School Network in Pueblo smelled of cold pizza and human bodies.
It was literally the 11th hour. And, for founder and former CEO Lawrence Hernandez, time was up.
On Friday, Oct. 2, an already-demoted Hernandez was fired by the Chavez board of directors, removing him completely from the network of schools he founded. The move came at 10:40 p.m., following a short meeting that began at 11:30 a.m. and a subsequent marathon executive session.
The nine-member board, which triples as the network board, the board of Dolores Huerta Preparatory High and the board of Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo, also severed all ties with Hernandez's wife, former network Chief Operating Officer Annette Hernandez, and fired executive Velia Rincon from Cesar Chavez Academy.
But the battle isn't over. The three have hired a lawyer who plans to fight for severance pay on their behalf.
The board had no comment on the terminations, or the negotiations that led to them, which may have included discussions of buyouts. Some parents, grandparents and staff — mostly Hernandez supporters — had waited all day for the finale. Among them was Angelina Sisneros, who has several relatives in Chavez schools, including the teen grandson she's raising.
"The kids are gonna be hurt by this," a visibly pained Sisneros said. "[Hernandez] started this school — maybe he got sidetracked, I don't know — but he started this school."
The case against Hernandez, who founded charter schools in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver, has heated up lately. There have long been allegations of systemized cheating on standardized tests at the schools, financial mismanagement, bloated executive salaries, nepotism and inappropriate domineering by Hernandez in board matters. The Colorado Department of Education agreed to audit the network this fall. The audits are not yet complete.
Then, recently, Hernandez battled the executives and independent board of Chavez's online GOAL Academy, whose headquarters were abruptly shuttered until the state stepped in.
Alex Medler, board chair for the Charter School Institute, the state entity that charters GOAL and Cesar Chavez Academy-North in Colorado Springs, says CSI considered revoking those charters. Instead, the Chavez board worked with CSI to approve an agreement that transfers power to both schools' independent boards.
In an Oct. 2 letter to board president Dennis Feuerstein, Pueblo City Schools superintendent Kathy West mentions she's heard of proposed buyouts for the Hernandezes and Rincon. She writes, "Pueblo City Schools will take issue with the use of any student funding or any other public funding being used for such buyouts."
Even without buyouts, money could still change hands. Attorney David W. Feeder II, of the Denver firm Messner & Reeves, is representing the three fired executives and plans to file litigation soon. He says each had an employment contract through June 2010, including severance provisions.
"By terminating them, [board members] have obligated themselves to considerable severance packages ... and potential damages," Feeder says.
It remains to be seen how a lawsuit might be affected by the ongoing audits. Talk around Pueblo City Schools is that Pueblo's Tenth Judicial District Attorney Bill Thiebaut may be preparing to file criminal charges against some Chavez employees — including Hernandez — based on state audit information.
Thiebaut did not return repeated calls seeking comment.