Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Colorado Springs charter school in turmoil over leadership, contracts

By Debbie Kelley Updated: February 7, 2014 at 7:27 am

A festering feud that some say boils down to differences of philosophy and others believe has turned nefarious is driving a wedge between board members of STAR Academy.

The rift contributed to one member's resignation in January and has created tension between the board and parents, with the Jan. 28 meeting bringing the threat of a recall petition.

"It's ugly," said board member Toby Norton.

Space, Technology and Arts Academy, or STAR, is a K-8 charter school in Colorado Springs School District 11 that specializes in serving at-risk families. Since opening in 2007, STAR Academy has had its share of uphill battles, including rallying back from the brink of closure last year after improving academic performance on state assessments and remedying financial problems.

Now in its third year on probationary status for maintaining operations as a charter school under D-11, STAR's latest woes center on concerns about one of the people responsible for bringing the school into existence.

Some parents and board members are lobbing accusations of dishonesty at one of the founding board members, the Rev. Al Loma, claiming he's using the school as a front to help support his church, Victory Outreach.

"The driving goal of the board is to funnel money to a local church instead of serving our students," said Norton, a long-time charter school advocate who also supported Loma's bid for a D-11 board seat. "He played us like a fiddle because we trusted him."

Not true, Loma counters with conviction.

"I haven't done anything wrong," he says. "Victory Outreach has brought in $1 million in revenue, based on students and savings, and if that weren't the case, the school would be in real trouble."

Loma is senior pastor at Victory Outreach church and executive director of an organization that provides treatment programs for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. STAR developed, Loma said, as an outgrowth of a home-school program his church ran. About 50 students from the church switched to STAR when it opened, he said.

The school has grown from 112 in its first year to this year's fall enrollment of 394. About 78 percent of the students come from impoverished families.

Contract conflicts

Loma sat on the D-11 board of education from 2009 to 2013, and lost a bid for re-election last November. With that background, he has given advice on governance and finances to the STAR board and worked with the staff on problem-solving.

Loma also helped orchestrate a deal shortly after the school started, which he said was designed to save money. Clients of a nonprofit residential addiction recovery program Loma heads, called Christian Recovery Home, provide janitorial services to STAR's two locations.

The program submitted the lowest bid, and the school's management company, Mosaica Education, accepted it. The school pays $8,350 a month for the services.

But the workers are untrained, and many people are unhappy with the quality of service, said Willie Breazell, who was on the STAR board for nearly six years before he quit last month.

"Teachers complained about the women's bathroom not being cleaned, specifically their sanitary napkins not being emptied for several days, maybe a week, and the principal took me around and showed me places that hadn't been cleaned probably for months," Breazell said. "But any time you complain, you get constant pushback."

Parents expressed their dissatisfaction at the Jan. 28 board meeting.

"The walls in this building are disgusting," Lisa Valdez told board members.

Another parent, Patricia Scotland, said she called one of the janitors the previous week to ask for a broom and dust pan "to pick up and clean up a spill that had been on the same spot for two weeks. That's unacceptable."

A recent report Principal Eddy Liddle issued also cited evidence of shoddy work, saying the buildings are not being cleaned properly, and said while the contract may be good for Christian Recovery Home, STAR needs to revisit it.

Loma believes the work is acceptable and says what the parents are asking for is beyond what other schools provide.

"Everybody thinks every inch should be cleaned every day, and that's not the norm," he said. "The majority of the board has the opinion that the needs are being met."

In fact, Loma said, "D-11 copied our model of a team cleaning approach and modified it for their use."

The crew, said STAR board member Steve Hinojos, who has been a teacher in D-11 schools and other districts, "do their best."

"When you have 185 days of school, it's not going to be perfect all the time," he said, "but I think they do a good job compared to other public schools I've been in."

A formal contract has not been renewed since June 2012, and a 90-day temporary agreement expired last fall, said board member Norton, who is calling for the board to solicit bids.

Jason Murdock, a parent member of the school's accountability committee, told the board the janitorial contract is "overly expensive" and the crew "under qualified."

Breazell said any other janitorial service would have been fired long ago.

"These guys don't come in uniform, they don't show up on time, they don't properly lock the building, they half clean the place and leave," he said. "The place is dirty, and it's impacting the morale of the teachers and the students."

Church members on board

Loma was elected president of the STAR board last September, when Breazell bowed out after serving three years as president.

Breazell voted for Loma to take over. But the change in leadership did not happen before what Breazell calls "a power struggle" about the board makeup ensued.

For years, parents fell short of playing a role in the school leadership and classrooms - a point on which everyone agrees.

"Up until this past year, you couldn't hire a board," Loma said.

No one responded to pleas for volunteers, Norton said. In that case, STAR's bylaws allow for the seated board to appoint people to fill vacancies.

So members of Victory Outreach church began gaining seats, which Breazell says has resulted in a majority that side with Loma. Four of the seven board seats now belong to church members. Only one of the current board members, Sam Otero, is a STAR Academy parent.

"Our bylaws state that the founders of STAR Academy were not parents but intended to give up their seats to parents nominated by the school community so it could be a parent-driven school," Norton said. "The whole spirit behind charter law is to engage the parents."

Loma agrees that parents play an important role in charter schools but said they tend to be temporary figures. Many of the families are low-income or military and move in and out of the area, he said.

"Most won't be around long enough for sustained growth, that's one of the downfalls," he said. "Another is that they want to make sure they get their way, in general."

Parents have the same criticism of Loma.

While addressing the board at the Jan. 28 meeting, parent Murdock said the "crony nature of the board, with the majority of its members under the sway of one man" has created a "ruling faction that controls every decision the board makes."

Board member Hinojos takes offense at that comment, saying he does not always see eye to eye with Loma and makes up his own mind when voting.

"There's been plenty of times I've disagreed and voted against him," Hinojos said.

Pushing for changes

Among other points of contention, Loma wants STAR Academy to expand and become a collaborative charter organization, with multiple schools under its wing, for teacher advancement and more opportunities for students.

Norton says the school should focus on improving test scores first and get off probation before entertaining expansion ideas. Loma wants the board to change its bylaws to have board members be appointed and not elected, which Norton also opposes.

Loma said he understands the differences in philosophy among board members but believes the direction would be best for the future of the school.

The phrase "conflict of interest" also comes up among members, particularly regarding the janitorial contract. Loma said, as per the school lawyer's advice, he recuses himself from voting on issues pertaining to the contract, but as president guides the meeting under parliamentary procedure.

Breazell disagrees.

"He blocks discussion, not facilitates it," Breazell said.

Loma has encountered opposition with unpopular public policy decision-making before, as a D-11 board member, and said he's made sure he follows proper legal avenues and that the unsavory comments from some STAR supporters are unfounded.

"There's a lot of deep, unfounded things that have been said that we have proven were false in executive session," Loma said. "We just can't bring them up in public because it involved other employees."

The janitorial partnership with the school is changing the community in a positive way, Loma believes, helping disadvantaged men by giving them work experience and a means to earn a living.

That's commendable, Breazell said.

"He's trying to help people who normally don't get any help in our society," Breazell said, "but he's going about it the wrong way.

"This is the wrong way for a charter school to be sustained using public funding, and I can't be part of it any longer. I'm basically abetting fraud."

Parent Scotland told the board at its January meeting she wants to collect signatures to recall Loma as board president. She also wants Breazell's seat on the board.

"What makes me qualified to be on the board? I can tell you what. I care. I am an involved parent who is at the school every day," Scotland said.

A board retreat to finalize the bylaw issue will be held 9-11 a.m. Saturday at Maggie Mae's restaurant, 2405 E. Pikes Peak Ave. The regular monthly board meeting is Feb. 25. It starts at 5 p.m. at the main campus at 2520 Airport Road.

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STAR ACADEMY DETAILS

Space, Technology and Arts Academy is a charter school in Colorado Springs School District 11.

Opened: 2007

Enrollment: 394 pupils

Locations: Airport Campus for grades K-2, 2520 Airport Road; Adams Campus for grades 3-8, 2101 Manitoba Drive (formerly Adams Elementary School).

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