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.
Ricardo Flores Magon Academy
"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.
Colorado Rockies vs. San Francisco Giants
TicketsMon., Sep. 4, 1:10pm
Colorado Rockies vs. San Diego Padres
TicketsFri., Sep. 15, 6:40pm
Colorado Rockies vs. Miami Marlins
TicketsMon., Sep. 25, 6:40pm
Colorado Rockies vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
TicketsFri., Sep. 29, 6:10pm
Denver Outlaws / Major League Lacrosse All Star Game
TicketsSat., Dec. 29, 6:00pm
"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."
Ricardo Flores Magón Academy opened in August 2007 in a retrofitted parole-office building in Westminster, with kindergarten, first and second grades and plans to add an additional grade every year. There are now about 300 students enrolled in kindergarten through sixth grade. A typical day there lasts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or later, much longer than at other elementary schools, but the goal is to improve student academic readiness.
It seems to be working. In 2010, 91 percent of its students scored proficient or above in reading on the annual Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests. In addition, 98 percent were proficient or above in math, and 60 percent were proficient or above in writing. The scores are so excellent — especially for a school with a high number of low-income students and English-language learners — that the academy has won several prestigious awards. Earlier this fall, Congressman Jared Polis heaped praise on the school in a speech about a pair of bills to support quality charter schools.
"She has learned so much," parent Mireya Vega says of her daughter, who's now in fifth grade. In addition to being more academically advanced than her peers, Vega says, her daughter is the number-one chess player in the state for her age.
The academy has a number of shiny trophies, including one for winning the state championship in boys' ten-and-under tennis, in which RFMA students faced off against country-club teams from around Colorado. As for its other extracurricular activity, chess, Martinez says that in "every single tournament, our kids have finished either first or second" in the Denver metro area.
Students wear red T-shirts printed with the school's name as a uniform. But on Fridays, the staff gives green shirts to those who did well that week. The shirts are a source of pride for kids who earn them, Martinez says, and an incentive for those who don't.
The school itself is a source of pride for Martinez. "We've always had great press," he says. "Always. We've never had one bad article."
Born and raised in Denver, Martinez, 34, attended Catholic schools and spent his early adulthood as a community organizer and a teacher at a Denver charter school (though he won't say which one). In 2005, he was chosen to participate in a year-long fellowship program through a Boston-based organization called Building Excellent Schools, which provides fellows with training and a $90,000 stipend to found what it calls a "high-achieving, no-excuses urban charter school that is independently managed."
"I realized that I wanted to put a college-prep school in the toughest area, the area with the lowest test scores," Martinez says. "So I researched, researched, researched and found Adams, north Denver — especially at the time — had the lowest test scores. And I said, 'That's where I want to put my school. Right there.'"
Martinez envisioned a school that would hold low-income, Spanish-speaking students to high academic standards. He chose tennis and chess as activities because they are what he calls "thinking sports" usually available only in wealthy suburban schools.
He also chose a name to reflect his vision. "We wanted to name it after someone that the community can identify with. At first I thought, okay, maybe Emiliano Zapata or Pancho Villa, but I said, you know, even though those guys believed in their people and their cause and they were great leaders, I thought, you know, I want to name it after someone who used their intellect. Not their gun. Not violence. Ricardo Flores Magon was an intellectual. He was a lawyer. He has written numerous publications. And he used his pen and his brain to make change."
In 2006, Martinez and his supporters began shopping the school around to a few districts, including Denver Public Schools and Adams 50. But both of them rejected his plan. DPS documents show that the district felt the school's application was incomplete, especially with regard to its curriculum, its budget and its plan for teaching children in both English and Spanish. Adams 50 had many of the same concerns and was also worried that the school's special-education and transportation plans were lacking.
So Martinez turned to the Charter School Institute, a quasi-state agency that had been created just two years earlier to help approve charter schools rejected by school districts with an ax to grind. And there were plenty of them. The law allowing charter schools had been on Colorado's books since 1993, but many school districts resisted them, fearing that charter schools would siphon off state money and students from the traditional public schools.
"Several...were willing to fight," says Jim Griffin, the president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. "They didn't care if it was a good school or a bad school. They were just saying, 'Hell, no.'"
So Griffin and others decided to create a way for charter-school hopefuls to bypass those districts, a cause that gained momentum in 2004 when the school board in Steamboat Springs defied a state Board of Education decision by flat-out refusing to allow a worthy Montessori charter school to open in town. The Charter School Institute was born that year, but local school districts didn't give up. In 2005, the Adams 50, Poudre and Boulder Valley school districts sued the state, arguing that it was unconstitutional for the institute to be able to sidestep the districts and usurp their control. After nearly two years of arguments, a judge sided with the institute.
CSI's backbone is a nine-member board of directors who approve or reject charter schools, and it has added paid staff members as it has grown. Novel at the time it was created, the institute remains something of an anomaly today: Only six other states and the District of Columbia have independent boards whose sole purpose is to authorize and oversee charter schools.
Still, the institute can't authorize charter schools just anywhere. It only has that power in districts without "exclusive chartering authority," which, in 2011, are rare. Districts can apply to the state education board for the privilege, and it can be revoked if the board finds that a district is treating applicants unfairly. That was the case in 2006, when RFMA applied to become a school located within the boundaries of Adams 50.
In November 2006, the institute's board approved the school. Although boardmembers discussed some of the same concerns that had been expressed by Adams 50 and DPS, only one member, Dean Titterington, voted against it. His objections, though, had more to do with the school's intended focus on Mexican culture, its name and its plan to eschew holidays like Presidents' Day in favor of Mexican holidays.
But that focus is what attracted several of the school's first teachers.
Briana Johnson had just graduated from the University of Northern Colorado's Cumbres Program, which trains college students to teach non-English-speaking children living in poverty, when she was hired in May 2007 as a kindergarten teacher for RFMA's inaugural year. "What attracted me was that it was college-preparatory school for the Latino community," Johnson says. "I always wanted to work in a high-needs school, and I felt I could connect with them because of me being Latina also.
"But it was a mess."
At her job interview, Johnson says, Martinez asked her to go by her Mexican mother's maiden name, Andrade, and not her Anglo father's last name if she were hired. "He said the kids would connect with me more," she says. "After I agreed to it, I questioned myself. It hurt my dad's feelings a lot, too."
Other incidents in the first few weeks set off additional warning bells for Johnson. She says Martinez opened teacher paychecks before handing them out, explaining that he was checking to see if the amounts were correct. Teachers were expected to clean their own classrooms, and Johnson says the bathrooms were often trashed. One day, she says, Martinez told the kindergarten teachers that he was going to scare the kids into being tidier in the bathrooms by telling them there were cameras in there. (There weren't.) In addition, teachers were told they couldn't take sick days because there were no substitutes, Johnson says, and the school lunches, usually tamales or burritos from a nearby Mexican restaurant, were unhealthy and gave the students stomachaches.
On August 28, 2007, the school began three days of standardized testing to determine student academic levels. Several of Johnson's kindergarteners, many of whom spoke no English and didn't understand the test, were dozing off during the testing. Unsure of what to do, Johnson told Antonio Vigil, the school's director of curriculum, who approached one of the sleeping students. "He pulled the student's chair from under him and made him stand up for the remainder of test," she says. "He said he couldn't have his chair back until he could show he could stay awake. The student was four years old."
Vigil, who no longer works at RFMA, didn't return calls from Westword.
Johnson says she expressed concerns about that incident and others to Martinez and Vigil, and on August 31, they asked her to meet them in the conference room after school. "That's when they fired me," she says. Johnson says they told her it had nothing to do with her teaching ability or work ethic, and even offered to write her letters of recommendation. (They did; the letters, which Johnson provided, are glowing.) Instead, she says, "Marcos told me I wasn't a good fit for the school."
Johnson suspects she was fired because she spoke up. "The reason he wanted to hire young teachers was so he could take advantage of us, not knowing what a school is supposed to look like or how a principal is supposed to treat the teachers," she says. "He thinks he's a god. He thinks he's the king of the world."
Johnson's experience isn't unique. Five other former teachers, some of whom worked at the school for several years, report similar behavior.
Susana Cabrera was hired in 2007, partly because she'd worked with Vigil, Martinez's second-in-command, at another charter school, KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy in Denver. She, too, was attracted by RFMA's focus on Latino students, but was quickly surprised by what she perceived as a lack of planning and procedures.
"There wasn't anything," she says. "It was just, 'Let's open up a school.'"
From the beginning, she says, the academy "wasn't very welcoming or very warm," a tone she says was set by Martinez and Vigil. "The teacher had to be the power and the authority." The students were called "Magonistas" after the followers of Ricardo Flores Magón, and whenever a teacher said the word "Flores," the students were expected to be quiet. Those who disobeyed were disciplined in front of the rest. "They would yell at kids and come down on them really hard," Cabrera says.
The administrators were hard on teachers, too, and the fact that several were fired that first year led to low morale, Cabrera says. "It made people feel insecure about what they were doing, and it made you feel like you were walking on eggshells," she says.
The next year, morale sunk even lower after another teacher, Monica Mendez, returned from three weeks of maternity leave. In an affidavit filed as part of Mitchell's lawsuit, Mendez wrote that she asked the school for a fourth week of leave to give her time to heal from a C-section. The school refused the request, however, and threatened to fire her if she didn't return immediately, she wrote. Once she was back at school, Mendez claims, Martinez and Vigil didn't allow her time to pump her breast milk, explaining that she was a "tough woman" and they didn't want to "enable" her. "It was clear to me that Marcos and Antonio believed that mothers with infant children were 'too weak' to teach at the school," Mendez wrote in her statement.
In May of that year, Mendez was informed that her contract wouldn't be renewed, and she filed an EEOC complaint. She declined to speak to Westword due to a settlement agreement with RFMA that cost the school $45,000.
Another teacher who began working there in the fall of 2008 says she was fired for being tardy on a single day at the end of the school year. She says she explained to Martinez that she'd been stuck in traffic resulting from an accident on the highway, and she even brought photos of the wreck to prove it. But she says Martinez insisted her tardiness was because she and several other teachers had gone out for drinks the night before with Mendez, who'd just been fired. When the teacher tried to say that wasn't the reason, she says Martinez got angrier. "He said, 'That's it! This is your last day!'"
Cabrera herself was fired the next year after she declined to continue tutoring students until 6 p.m. She says she told Martinez that the students were so tired that the tutoring wasn't helping. "He took that as very unprofessional and very rude," Cabrera says, "and his explanation to me when he fired me was, 'If I say black, you say white. We just don't understand each other anymore, and we should cut our losses.'"
Tennis instructor Victoria Veniegas says she was fired over a dispute about student grades. Veniegas had given several children C's, "figuring they could work up to something better." But Martinez and Vigil called her into the office and implied that the grades should be higher, she says. "I told them, 'I'm not changing my grades,'" Veniegas says. "They told me, 'Well, then, your services are no longer needed here.'"
Parents also had complaints. Sarah Griego claims her son was kicked out of the school when, two weeks before the end of the year, she told Martinez he'd been accepted at another charter and wouldn't be returning the following year. Griego, a former parent-teacher organization member who volunteered at the school several days a week, says she saw too many unnerving things to keep her son there, including administrators screaming at children and affording the students little to no recess time and a limited number of bathroom breaks. "Marcos is a tyrant," Griego says. "If you do not agree with Marcos, if you're not on the same page, he has no interest in speaking with you.... It's 'my way or the highway.'"
In addition to teachers' stories, Westword uncovered other complaints and criticisms.
Also in the Charter School Institute's file on the school:
* A memorandum of understanding chastising RFMA for not telling the institute that it planned to change the location of its school, a requirement listed in its charter;
* A letter ordering RFMA to display the American flag, which it must do by law, after an institute representative visited the school and found none;
* An e-mail to RFMA's board of directors detailing complaints the institute heard from a former staffer, including that the individual special-education plans for students were copied and pasted rather than tailored to each student, that low-performing students were "counseled out" of the school so they wouldn't drag down CSAP scores, and that Martinez checked CSAP answers and coached students on the test;
* A letter asking the board to look into allegations from a parent that Martinez is unprofessional and "that the children at the school are suffering psychologically due to verbal abuse and harsh punishments directed at students";
* A 2011 report from the Colorado Department of Education noting that although the school has taken some steps to address staff burnout, such as starting an internship program so prospective teachers can get a feel for what it's like to work there, most remain "for a span of less than a month to two years"; that the students "receive limited exposure to American history"; and that the use of Che Guevara, whose picture "is present in many classrooms and the office of the Head of School," as a role model "is inappropriate."
Martinez acknowledges that the environment at Ricardo Flores Magón Academy, which is officially registered as a non-profit organization, is different than at other schools, but he denies that the culture is harsh, preferring to call it "focused."
"To work here is almost like you are on a mission," he says. "I like to tell people working here is not necessarily a career. You're looking at working here more as a vocation. There's a lot we do here because we believe in the mission, and the people that work here understand that when you come here, you full-out give everything you've got for these kids. And it's worked."
He also denies all of the accusations against him. He doesn't favor Hispanic employees and denies having asked Johnson and other teachers with Anglo last names, including Mitchell, to go by their initials or maiden names. "That's ludicrous," he says. As for the claim that he wouldn't allow Mendez to pump breast milk, he calls it "a lie." Martinez is adamant that he's never kicked a student out of school, including the boy whose mother claims he was booted after she told Martinez that her son wouldn't be returning the following year. "She pulled him out," Martinez says.
In fact, he chalks up the complaints and the lawsuits and the calls to the health department to sour grapes. "Sometimes when I have to make hard decisions and I have to fire someone or let someone go, it hurts people's egos," he says. "And so now, [they say], 'I want to get back at this school. I'm going to say these lies.'
"What this comes down to is there's people who are unhappy with the way the school is run or they don't get their way, or whatever it is, and they lash out."
In theory, Martinez is supervised by the school's board of directors, which has also experienced some turnover. The only long-serving member who returned phone calls was Arthur Silva, who also happens to be Martinez's stepfather. "We made a decision a long time ago that we'd be a high-performing school," Silva says. "There are expectations." As for Martinez's behavior, he says, "I don't believe I've ever dealt with an issue of Marcos being overbearing. We do have strict curricula. We know these children are going to be successful if it's applied. At what point do you compromise your academics or methodologies because some people feel differently about it?"
In addition, board president Virginia Longoria sent a statement. It's the board's duty to investigate any complaints about the school, including those made to the Charter School Institute. In her statement, Longoria points out that RFMA is actually subject to greater scrutiny than other schools because, unlike a school district, the board has just one school to oversee.
"RFMA's success is due in large part to its relentless commitment to its 'no excuses' guiding principle," Longoria writes. "RFMA applies this standard not only to the students but also to the school's administration and its teachers.... If a teacher or an administrator is not 100 percent committed to that standard, then RFMA will find another teacher or administrator who is. This means that RFMA has had to hold teachers accountable, including terminating some who failed to meet the standard."
She adds, "The RFMA board is aware of and has investigated the concerns raised in this newspaper article. The RFMA board invites any person with concerns about the school to attend the next board meeting so they can discuss their concerns with the board.
"So far, however, many of these individuals have refused to meet with Mr. Martinez or even appear before the RFMA board. Unfortunately, many of these individuals won't even put their names behind their complaints."
The last sentence of the statement is this: "The RFMA board stands behind Mr. Martinez and his excellent track record of successful dedication to RFMA's students."
All of the teachers and parents who spoke to Westword say they tried to complain to the Charter School Institute but got nowhere. "Every time I would call, they'd give me the roundabout," says the former teacher who was fired for being late. "They'd patch me through to voice mail, I'd leave messages, and no one would call me back. The first person who answered, I'd unload on them, and they didn't want to hear it. They didn't want to be part of the drama. I'm thinking they were feeling overwhelmed."
The institute's current policy on complaints includes a color-coded flow chart that shows the proper way to respond. Teacher issues, for instance, should be re-routed back to the school's administration, it says; if there's still no resolution, the institute can send the school a "notice of concern" and ask administrators and the school's board — which, for charter schools, functions much like a district school board — to respond.
But that chart is new.
Before this year, the institute, which currently has 22 schools on its roster, had little in the way of policies and procedures about complaints, finances or staff responsibilities. "It was just scattered. You didn't know who was doing what, and the schools felt that," says Ethan Hemming, the institute's new deputy executive director. "When they called, they'd get different information."
Part of the reason is that the founding boardmembers had no blueprints to follow. "It really is a case of building an airplane while you fly it," says Alex Medler, one of the first boardmembers and a national charter-school law expert. "Did we not have the right tools? No, we certainly didn't. Were we working to create them? You bet."
One of the first things the board did was hire an executive director, Randy DeHoff, who at the time also served on the State Board of Education — which some saw as a conflict of interest, since the state board is ultimately responsible for disciplining the institute. While the institute's current administrators are hesitant to point fingers, they say several decisions made during his tenure led the organization down a chaotic path.
"There were so many growing pains in the beginning," says current executive director Mark Hyatt, who is retiring at the end of the year.
DeHoff didn't return phone calls from Westword.
But the blame isn't totally his. For years, boardmembers argued about whether the institute should act as an authorizer, approving schools and checking to make sure students were learning and finances were in order, or whether it should also take on the responsibilities of a school district, such as doling out federal special-education funds, running the school lunch program and stepping in when schools were in trouble.
"We went back and forth between being an authorizer and a district," says Craig Bowman, a retired schoolteacher and newspaper columnist who was appointed as one of the founding boardmembers. "If we're the authorizer, to whom do they go to report?"
The board wound up deciding it should be both, Bowman and Medler recall, and DeHoff hired staff to carry out the district functions.
But when Hyatt took over in February 2010, he realized that the institute had overspent about $200,000, mostly on staff. "This was at the crisis stage," Hyatt says. "But I said, 'We're going to make lemonade out of lemons here. And we're going to use this to get rid of the people who need to move on.... We were going to go from good to great — well, we weren't even good. Okay, we were going to go from poor to good, and then next year, we were going to go from good to great."
Hyatt slashed the staff, balanced the budget and shut down a satellite office in Grand Junction that was administering special-education services to the schools in that region. For a while, the cutbacks made things worse. Hyatt and a bare-bones staff struggled, and failed, to get the state and federal dollars that are the lifeblood of charter schools to them on time. "We were in survival mode," Hyatt says.
In March of this year, things started to turn around, Hyatt says. The budget inched back into the black, and Hyatt was able to make a few hires, including Hemming and a sharp new chief financial officer, whom he sees as key to resurrecting the institute. The organization also won about $100,000 in grants from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to hire consultants to write a strategic plan for the institute and help carry it out. The plan, completed in July, points out several of the same shortcomings that Hyatt noticed, including the institute's identity crisis. "They were trying to be everything to everybody, and they were not doing anything all that well," Hyatt says.
Although the institute still has to carry out some district-like function by law, it has scaled back. And Hemming and others are now working to create procedures and tools that should have been in place years ago, including a more robust annual performance report that will track schools' test scores, finances and safety.
That will matter more as schools' charters come up for renewal, which generally happens every three to five years. Not renewing a charter has been the main way the institute has punished bad schools in the past; in 2010, the board closed an online school that couldn't enroll or keep enough students. Its biggest embarrassment, however, was probably its involvement in the Cesar Chavez School Network. The institute was the authorizer of two schools in the five-school network when a scandal over money and test scores caused the ouster of the network's founder. The schools, now called GOAL Academy and Scholars to Leaders Academy, have since separated from the network.
With RFMA's charter set to expire, the school has plans to reapply to the institute, as well as apply to Adams 50. Applications to the institute are due by December 12. Staff will review them and present a recommendation to the board, which is scheduled to vote on RFMA's renewal, along with two others, on February 21. Adams 50's process is less formal. "I'm working with Marcos to make sure to get the loose ends tied up," says James Duffy, the district's chief operations officer, of RFMA's application. He expects the district's board will vote in January. Martinez says that although he's grateful to the institute for giving the school its start, he's eager to be part of a resource-rich district. "We're in their back yard," he says. "We want to be part of their community."
Duffy says the academy's application contains no red flags: "They have shown that their instructional model has been successful with their students." He also notes that their finances seem to be in good order. "We're not above saying we bet on the wrong horse early on," he says about the fact that Adams 50 rejected the school in 2006.
But Duffy didn't know about the pending lawsuits or the complaints before talking with Westword. The charter school institute, meanwhile, was aware of the landlord lawsuit, but not of Mitchell's. RFMA also failed to tell the district about its plans to expand the school to Brighton and Cheyenne, Wyoming. "The renewal will take into consideration the entire body of evidence," Hyatt says. "I mean everything and anything."
But parent and teacher complaints are "a tricky area for an authorizer to wade into," says Griffin, of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. "It's hard to assess whether this is just natural bellyaching from people who left their district school because they were unhappy and now — guess what? — they're unhappy. Is the authorizer going to be well-positioned to sort through that he said-she said? That's kind of the school's problem."
But Gus Nicholson, landlord of the school's home during its first four years, hopes that the authorizers will listen.
In 2007, RFMA signed a ten-year lease for Nicholson's building. Since RFMA was a start-up, Nicholson allowed them to pay cheaper rent the first year, with the understanding that the rent would increase each year until it reached market value. But in 2009, RFMA told Nicholson that the school intended to buy its own building instead, court documents say. And it did. This spring, it purchased the former Berkeley Gardens Elementary School in Westminster from Adams 50 for $642,000.
But first RFMA sued Nicholson, asking for a judge to rule that it could break its lease due to a technicality in the contract. The judge ruled against RFMA, and the school is now appealing. In the meantime, RFMA is still paying rent, and Nicholson, while angry, wants the school's charter to be renewed so that it can continue to do so.
Former teachers and parents have a different take, however.
Mitchell, the teacher who filed the lawsuit, says, "The leadership needs to go."
Cabrera agrees. "I think that if there was a different person in the leadership, sure, why not? But with Marcos at the forefront, they should not get a renewal."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.