PUEBLO — Employees of the Chavez Huerta Preparatory Academy in Pueblo expressed frustrations with the board of directors during Tuesday night’s school board meeting.
Several employees said the morale of the workplace changed after the previous CEO of the school retired.
John Kristan was a special education teacher at Chavez Huerta and said the school was a close-knit community when he started in 2018.
“It's a really special place and it has kind of its own, like family, like homey type of feel where everybody's kind of in it together, and we want to be successful,” Kristan said.
After changes in administration during the summer, followed by a string of resignations and terminations, he no longer felt the workplace was a secure environment. He said he resigned from his position soon after.
“All of a sudden, everything kind of changed in the sense that just there was a completely different tone, and you didn't feel safe doing what you were doing, because there were a few employees that I would consider almost indispensable that were let go right away,” he said.
Kristan said the school’s human resources director was fired weeks after CEO Hal Stevens stepped in on July 1st. Karen Ortiz, the former chief academic officer, said she retired after Stevens called her into his office and said her job was no longer necessary.
“I wasn't really planning on retiring. I've cried a lot of tears over the month of July,” Ortiz said.
Kristan said seeing his colleagues, who had decades of experience in the field, leave was the tipping point for him.
“I felt, for whatever reason, I just wanted to take a stance and say, ‘Wait a minute, this is going in the wrong direction,’” he said.
During Tuesday’s board meeting, around 100 people showed up to fill the seats in the cafeteria inside Dolores Huerta Preparatory High School. Around 15 people spoke during public comment, including current teachers calling for the resignation of CEO Hal Stevens and Board President Stephen Varela.
“In light of the recent decisions by the board, I do not think the board prioritizes the students’ best interests,” said Arjun Sahdev, a seventh-grade math teacher at the academy.
Jessica Mata-Gilman, an instructional coach at the academy’s middle school, also called for the resignation of the board president and the CEO.
“This year, under the leadership of Stephen Varela and Hal Stevens, has been marked by fear, intimidation, and a cloud of uncertainty. These individuals do not embody the values of CHPA and do not have our students’ best interests at heart,” she said.
Stephen Varela, the board president, said he is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the school and said he was not aware of any resignations or terminations of employees.
“We were told as a board, we needed to kind of step back and allow the operations to happen. So that's one thing that we want to stay firm on is that we stay out of the operations,” Varela said.
Multiple teachers, including Kristan and Ortiz, said that CEO Hal Stevens had not spent enough time getting to know the community before making important staffing decisions.
“He never got in there, got to know people, got to know about the organization, got to know about what the kids want and that was, to me, a failing in leadership for sure,” Kristan said.
After an hour of public comment at the board meeting, the issues between the employees of Chavez Huerta and the board of directors still stand, which Kristan said he believes will ultimately affect the students.
“Their leadership style just doesn't work with the school, and it just hasn’t been conducive to success. Eventually, that's going to trickle down to the students’ successes,” he said.
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