Tempers flared during Tuesday’s meeting of Pueblo’s Chávez Huerta Preparatory Academy (CHPA) Board. Of the 13 speakers who addressed the board during the public comment period, eight called for the resignation of board president — and Republican Colorado Senate candidate — Stephen Varela.
A majority of the speakers during the public comment session who called for Varela’s resignation were former or current employees, including the CHPA principal, Kim Sanchez. “Any type of unilateral decision making will derail the ability of our educators who are most qualified to make educational decisions for our students,” she said. “Unilateral decision making will also prohibit community support and overall trust from your stakeholders. Your stakeholders need a voice, and you trust that your input will not be overseen or undervalued. Eight months ago, this gambit fell on deaf ears to the majority of the CHPA board during public comment in January. Now here we are today where that decision-making mentality is having a severe and direct negative impact on our staff, community, and ultimately our students. It is extremely difficult to believe the CHPA is in good hands that best follows our school vision, mission, and our core values. During the April board meeting, then CHPA board vice president Stephen Varela expressed the board’s commitment to rebuild the trust lost with the CHPA staff and community. Since that time, actions and decisions being made have not led to any avenues to rebuild that trust that was lost. Therefore, I call for the immediate resignation of current board president Steven Varela.”
“This is very politically charged,” said Varela after the meeting was adjourned. “You have a big political movement here tonight, which is really good, because it shows my campaign, outside of being a board member, must be gaining traction.”
Among the issues brought up by speakers during public comment were questions about whether Varela’s election as board president was legitimate and concerns about recent personnel decisions made by the new CHPA Chief Executive Officer, Hal Stevens.
Brad Miller, CHPA’s legal counsel — who is also the legal counsel for a number of school districts dealing with controversial board leadership and policies, including District 49 in Colorado Springs and the Woodland Park School District — pre-emptively addressed concerns in his report at the start of the meeting.
“The board election, the officer election that took place this spring in which Stephen Varela was elected to be board chair, was consistent with board policies,” said Miller. “It was legal. There’s concerns about the administrative policies which are nonbinding. They don’t apply to the governance for the board in a direct manner. This election was consistent with past practice. … There is no question about the efficacy of those elections. They are the elections for this year, for this season, and they can’t be reversed. It would be, for example, to try to unwind them, would unwind all of the actions taken since July 1st or even, since May, something that’s just not feasible and it’s not required because the bylaws and other policies do support those elections.”
Miller also addressed concerns over recent personnel decisions and told the community that Varela, or any other CHPA board member, had nothing to do with those decisions. “I was in the room where Hal Stevens made a very difficult H.R. decision,” he said. “In fact, this is a decision that Hal Stevens made. It was not informed by any board decision or board member advocacy. This was a decision that Mr. Stevens made based on objective criteria that was completely outside of any sort of those influences. It was based on observations and issues that were internal. I’ve observed that some of the reactions have been partisan in nature. And I’m going to ask everyone here — frankly, I’ve got two people sitting at this dais who’ve been involved, in some level, in politics. We need to not let that sort of partisanship influence the way we approach these decisions, and I find it very unfortunate that that’s the case in this instance.”
Stevens, during his report to the board, defended those decisions by claiming instances of nepotism, mismanagement, and “lies, innuendo, and subversion.”
Varela is running against Sen. Nick Hinrichsen (D-Pueblo), who was appointed to fill the seat when Leroy Garcia resigned in February to take a position with the Department of Defense. The outcome of the Pueblo senate race this November could potentially affect the Democrat’s five-seat majority in the Senate, and Varela says that was the motivation behind Tuesday’s public comments.
“Leaders of the Democratic Party that are bringing a lot of their friends to the meeting,” said Varela. “Some of them aren’t even involved in the community or the school. You heard from our CEO. He brought up a lot of issues that are going on, which seem pretty valid. I think a lot of this is a reaction with me running for office in the state Senate. You have Mr. Dennis Maes [a retired judge, for whom Pueblo’s Dennis Maes Judicial Building is named] here, he’s very involved with the Democratic Party. You have Sandy Gutierrez. You have a lot of people, Mr. [Juan] Espinosa. They want to put this stuff together.”
Maes also called for Varela’s resignation. “This board’s leadership was elected in December, some six or seven months ago. And two of the members that voted at that time aren’t even on the board this time. I was hopeful Mr. Varela would follow the board bylaws and policies concerning the filling of board vacancies, since he himself removed Ms. [Angela] Giron [CHPA board secretary and former Democratic Colorado Senator] as chair of the recruitment committee and appointed himself as the chair. Unfortunately, the board still does not operate with the five-member board as required because Mr. Varela has not been diligent in his recruitment responsibilities. I was hopeful that Mr. Stevens, as a newly hired CEO by the Chávez Huerta staff and Community with enthusiasm [would have] a promising vision for the future. Instead, he spent his first six weeks firing an experienced, loyal, and competent H.R. director, received the resignations of several top notch administrators and staff, and intimidated other staff members by listing their positions when they had not indicated a desire to leave. … Unfortunately, the only way the board can regain the trust and respect of the Chávez Huerta staff and community is through the immediate resignations of Mr. Varela and Mr. Stevens.”
Democratic Pueblo County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz, himself an alumni of CHPA, also called for changes to the board. “The reason that this room is full tonight is because the composition of the board needs to change,” he said.
Ortiz was recently censured by the Pueblo County Democratic Party for endorsing Republican Zach Swearingen for county commissioner.
“The board did not direct any of the personnel decisions,” said Miller. “Stephen Varela did not direct any of the personnel decisions. These decisions were made in a vacuum by Hal, with all of the other sorts of experiences and exchanges that he had personally.”