Cesar Chavez Charter Schools: Giving school choice an even lousier name

Every week we introduce you to one of life's biggest shmucks. Our latest: the Cesar Chavez Schools network.

Since they began gaining steam in the late-90s, charter schools -- those independent public schools whose freedom from some restrictive education law is supposed to allow them to compete with traditional public schools -- have been hampered by, among other things, a reputation for corruption and ineptitude. While plenty of charter schools float under the radar, with mixed academic results but a mostly unwavering commitment to helping students, each year brings a few more stories about unsavory charter-school operators bilking taxpayers and screwing schoolkids in the process.

This week, another such bad apple dragged school choice through the negative ink: the Colorado-based Cesar Chavez School Network, which just last year opened a campus in Denver.

According to an audit by a California firm, the network -- which has two schools in Pueblo and one Denver -- is a model of shadiness.

The schools, under founder and former director Lawrence Hernandez, racked up $400,000 in credit card expenditures in a single school year, including more than $130,000 on travel, and used their 26 credit cards to pay for cell phones for the children of school leaders.

And while they charged seemingly every meal they ate in 2008-2009, they probably could have afforded to pick up a check or two: The network's top executives made as much as 200 percent more than the average salary for similar positions, the audit says.

Also -- this is cute -- pretty much everyone Hernandez hired to work at the school was a relative, which would be cool if it was a really smart family, but the audit seems to indicate otherwise.

There are piles of allegations in the report, which you can download yourself. But what it doesn't do is call the leaders of Cesar Chavez Charter Schools what they are: complete and utter shmucks.

Meet more shmucks in our Shmuck of the Week archive.

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