Sowing Discontent

The anti-crime Weed and Seed program is leaving behind a lot of scorn and thorns in Denver neighborhoods.

Of the two middle schools and two high schools that fall within the boundaries of the original target neighborhoods, none has experienced any decline in the percentage or number of students who have dropped out since 1992. In fact, 97 more youths quit West High School during the 1994-1995 school year then they did the previous year. And at Manual High School, 157 more students left. The overall Denver Public Schools dropout rate among middle school and high school youth increased only 0.9 percent from 1993-94 to 1994-95; but the increase was 3.5 percent at West and 8.8 percent at Manual.

Some neighborhood activists--even those who help distribute the funds--say they wish the funding was dried up so they wouldn't have to endure another year of assigning blame.

"Weed and Seed has caused more damage than good," says Capitol Hill's Nachtigal. "It drained so much time and volunteer hours. The government doesn't realize how much free time and labor they get. No one wants to do any more volunteer work that's connected with the government. It takes so long to get anything accomplished."

C.M. Mangiaracina, program director for a nonprofit organization called Urban Youth Leadership, agrees. He tried to conduct a $2,400 program to take Highland kids rock-climbing in the summer of 1995, but he complains that bureaucratic delays doomed his plans. "I presented this program in February, for early summer," he says. "I didn't get the full grant until August, so I only had five weeks for the kids."

Joe Abeyta, who runs the St. Charles Recreation Center in the Cole neighborhood, says "all the red tape and hassle" of acquiring grant money for recreational programs ($5,000 in 1992, he says, and $2,000 the next year) "just wasn't worth it. We have a big majority of Hispanics, and I don't think anything was geared toward them. Of all the meetings I went to, I was one of the only Hispanics there."

Many of the fingers point to former project director Carlos Guerra. He points right back. "Everybody kept waiting for someone else to fix the problems," says Guerra, who ran the program from early 1994 through the fall of 1995. "Everybody has a responsibility."

Guerra and others say that political pressure from residents in the Weed and Seed neighborhoods prompted the city to move the program from the community-relations department to the Department of Safety. But Guerra himself is disgruntled, too. He says he left because he was "tired of the dynamics," and he says that Weed and Seed produced "no measurable, demonstrable progress." He admits he wasn't personally popular, but not because he wasn't doing a good job, he says. Guerra describes himself as "willing to stand up against the status quo."

Of course, many people think he was the status quo, and neighbors complained to Mayor Wellington Webb the day Webb appointed him in 1994. "The day I was announced," Guerra says, "they went to the mayor and demanded that I be removed. People knew nothing about me."

Fancy Frandsen, who worked for Guerra for a year, says, "I thought he was a very dynamic man. But he got caught in the same crap I got caught in. The same people took him on."

Complaints about Guerra didn't just come from the Baker neighborhood, however; they came from everywhere. One former Highland official even went so far as to call Guerra a moron. "He would come out, he would implement things, then 24 hours later he'd be on a different horse in a different direction," says the former Highland official. "I said, if you're gonna keep doing this, you can have it."

At the end of 1994, Capitol Hill's Nachtigal says, NPT leaders persuaded the mayor to review Guerra's performance, and other candidates were considered for the job. Manager of Safety Butch Montoya "had the four presidents interview the other candidates in early 1995," Nachtigal says. (At the time, there were only four neighborhoods in the program.) "All four neighborhoods said, 'Anyone but Carlos.' There were letters from Highland and Baker complaining about Carlos. But I found out Carlos was staying a week later. The people who found out were very mad."

Guerra eventually left--of his own accord, he says. Some people charge that he was pressured to leave after the city initially failed to reacquire a $300,000 Neighbor to Neighbor grant for 1995 and 1996. (City officials ultimately had to beg for the grant in person.) According to critics, the history of the grant is typical of the program's mismanagement. The first Neighbor to Neighbor grant, which was used together with the Weed and Seed money, was awarded to the city in April 1994 and required the hiring of health workers in the neighborhoods. But such workers weren't found until December of that year. The city had to apply for funds for 1995 and 1996 with little to show from the original funding. Guerra suggests that the new monies were delayed not because of him but because Denver Health and Hospitals couldn't find the specialized health workers the grant required until the grant period was almost up.

DHH points right back at Guerra. "All we were was a part of the committee," says DHH spokeswoman Stephanie Denning. "The project director was responsible for recruiting people."

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