Charter school chief rules with iron fist, say teachers

Claudia Mitchell couldn't breathe. The usually bubbly schoolteacher had just visited her doctor, who tested her for swine flu. It was fall 2009, at the height of the H1N1 outbreak. Mitchell had a fever, a headache and a sore throat, and she felt so weak that four days earlier, she'd missed Thanksgiving dinner, unable to rouse herself from a heap on the couch. Her doctor soon called with the results of the test: She had H1N1.

"She said, 'How are you feeling?' and I just broke down, and I said, 'I can't stand it. I barely made it home. I can't breathe. I feel like I'm going to crawl out of my skin,'" Mitchell recalls. "She said, 'I hate to tell you this, but I need you to come back in, and I'm going to call the hospital and tell them you're on your way.'"

The swine flu, coupled with Mitchell's asthma, had caused her oxygen levels to drop. After several nebulizer treatments, Mitchell called her boss, Marcos Martinez, the head of Ricardo Flores Magón Academy charter school in Westminster, where she'd been teaching since August. It was Monday afternoon, and the two had been trading increasingly hostile e-mails all weekend after Mitchell wrote to say she had a doctor's appointment on Monday and would likely be too sick to work.

"We need you to come in on Monday," Martinez had written back. "I understand that things happen, but I told you when you were hired that we are a small school and we don't have people to cover, and because of that, oftentimes we will come in to work sick.

"I expect you to be there on Monday."

When she went to the hospital instead, Martinez responded by telling her not to come back for the rest of the year. "We totally understand that you didn't mean to get sick," he wrote. "Your students however can't wait."

That militant approach is typical, according to former teachers and parents at the school who say that Martinez, who named the academy after a Mexican anarchist who encouraged workers to rise up against the country's dictator in the Mexican Revolution, runs the place as if he were a dictator himself.

"When I would voice concerns, it was always taken by him as an attack," says former teacher Susana Cabrera. "It was like, 'You don't like it? You can leave.'"

More than a few teachers have done just that. Board minutes show that fifteen staff members — a good portion of whom were fired by Martinez for "not being a good fit" — left in the first four years of the school's existence.

Some of them say Martinez favored male staff members and those who were Hispanic. They say he also created an uncomfortable working environment.

Mitchell is suing Martinez and the school in U.S. District Court. She believes Martinez discriminated against her because she has a disability — asthma — that exacerbated her illness. Further, she believes Martinez treated her differently than other employees because although she herself is Latina, she's married to a white man.

Another former teacher filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming she'd been discriminated against because she was a woman, especially during and after her pregnancy. She settled with the school.

RFMA's problems don't end there, however. The school, which moved to a new location this fall, has also been criticized by state education officials for its high teacher turnover rate and its use of Che Guevara as a role model for young children. It has been slapped on the wrist by the county health department for not having hot water or a food-service license at its old facility and is embroiled in a lawsuit with its previous landlord.

It's a lot of trouble for a five-year-old school, but perhaps not unexpected. The plan for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy was rejected by two school districts before finally being approved by an unusual charter-granting agency that was going through its own problems at the time — problems that led to a total overhaul of the agency last year.

Now the academy's charter is up for renewal. Its leaders have plans to apply to two different agencies to reauthorize it: the Colorado Charter School Institute, which holds the current charter that's set to expire June 30, and Adams County School District 50, which rejected it five years ago and in whose boundaries the school is located. Martinez also plans to expand: Ricardo Flores Magón Academy has applied for a charter in the Brighton 27J School District and won conditional approval in September for a school in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

While former teachers and parents say there are good things about the school, including its outstanding academic outcomes, they don't believe the academy should be allowed to continue with Martinez at the helm. "The teachers are excellent teachers," says former parent Sarah Griego. "The problem lies with Martinez."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar