When It Comes to Colorado Montessori, James Walton Is Calling the $hots
James Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, has taken a liking to Montessori schools in Colorado.
On September 28, 2016, the Walton Family Foundation via the Chronicle of Philanthropy began advertising for an education director for the Colorado-based “James Walton Fund.”
Below is how the ed director job ad presents James Walton’s involvement in Montessori in Colorado:
As an engineering undergraduate at Colorado School of Mines, James regularly volunteered with local schools, working directly with students. One day, he walked into a Montessori charter school that had been a previous WFF grant recipient. Observing a group of children independently engaged in learning within a structured environment, it occurred to him:
- This seems to be a unique and important way of helping children succeed
- Why is this school model wildly underrepresented within the public school system?
Since that moment, James has devoted his time and his investments to better understanding child-centered approaches. He has worked on the ground as a Montessori high school apprentice and dedicated observer. He started a Montessori teacher-training center. His grants have expanded beyond Montessori to organizations and research that serve students in a holistic way and support diverse school options.
The result? A long-term vision: That all students have viable access to a healthy variety of instructional models, each with an intentional and aligned approach to meeting the unique academic, cognitive and developmental needs of its students.
Even though the ad notes that James Walton “started a Montessori teacher-training center,” the name of the center is not disclosed– nor are any details behind the nebulous, “started a training center” statement.
The goal of this post is to provide some of those Walton-omitted details regarding the degree of James Walton’s control over Montessori education in Colorado.
This is the one site that includes a detailed bio on James Walton:
James Walton came to Montessori education after working from kindergarten through college in an orthodox public education environment. Coming from a family historically devoted to education patronage, James has had a wealth of exposure to the diverse and dynamic educational landscape of this country. Experiences in a variety of environments led him to question the notion of success presented by traditional models of schooling. James developed a deep appreciation for detailed observation and scientific methodology while pursuing his undergraduate engineering degree at the Colorado School of Mines. His concurrent volunteer work in educational institutions across the Denver area led him to Compass Montessori where the remarkable academic and social culture inspired him to support and participate in the further development of secondary Montessori education. Most recently James and his colleagues created Great Work, Inc. a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and supporting the art and science of secondary Montessori education and guiding the preparation of educators and learning environments.
Important info: James Walton was connected with Golden, Colorado”s Compass Montessori, and “James and his colleagues created Great Work, Inc. a non-profit organization.”
Sure enough, there is a website, GreatWorkMontessori.org, with a “leadership team” page that includes details about the founding of Great Work, Inc.
Here is where it gets dicey.
I read the leadership team page for the first time on October 25, 2016. It included bio info on three individuals– none of which is James Walton. Moreover, of those three individuals, the bio of only one included founder info, and that was the bio of Daniel Marsh– “was” being the operative term since on October 26, 2016, Marsh’s bio info had been removed.
Marsh was described as a “co-founder” of Great Work, Inc., in 2013. But get this:
No other individuals listed were identified as co-founders.
Below is Marsh’s October 19, 2016, archived bio:
DANIEL MARSH – MEDIA, RESEARCH, & POLICY ANALYST
Daniel’s interest in education surfaced as a Distinguished Governor’s scholar at the University of Arkansas, where his research documented significant experimental studies in secondary physics education. As a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, Daniel’s focus was on understanding how school curriculum is shaped in the United States, and how this process relates to the history and philosophy of science and human intelligence. In 2006, a fortuitous encounter led him to Compass Montessori, where for seven years he was one of four core staff members in the high school. His responsibilities as a teacher were many: advising students and teaching mathematics as well as philosophy, physics, media ecology, and photography. Daniel also supported sports teams, led domestic and international trips, worked closely with interns, designed and implemented professional development opportunities for internal staff, and employed his professional photography skills to contribute to documentation. In 2013, Daniel co-founded Great Work, Inc. He currently serves as the director of the Great Work Apprenticeship Program and mentors aspiring Montessori secondary teachers. He is also a research analyst and resource manager and curator. In his free time, he is pursuing doctoral work in education at CU-Boulder with the goal understanding and improving the work of teachers and their preparation. @D_GreatWork
The fact that “co-founder” Marsh’s info disappeared only adds to the shadiness when one considers what the Great Work Montessori leadership page looked like on March 30, 2016.
There is another Great Work co-founder: Chris von Lersner. And for some reason, by October 2016, her info disappeared from the Great Work Montessori website. But here is her info from the March 2016 archive:
CHRIS VON LERSNER – PEDAGOGICAL POT-STIRRER
Chris von Lersner is one of the original founders of Great Work. She received a BA in Elementary Education from the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia. She jumped directly from her subsequent Montessori Elementary training, under Margaret Stephenson in 1985, to a position at Northwoods Montessori School, in Atlanta, Georgia, as a collaborator in one of the early urban Montessori Secondary experiments in the United States – a program Mario Montessori Jr. referred to as an “”urban compromise.”” The program was short-lived, but all collaborators were left the wiser for it. Chris served as an itinerant middle school English teacher in Japan, directed an urban Upper Elementary class in Atlanta, worked as an illustrator, adopted two children, and taught musical instrument building, ensemble music, and graphic design to children and adolescents before she accepted the position of Farm School Program Director at Compass Montessori in 2010.
Prior to joining the Secondary faculty at Compass, she participated in the NAMTA Orientation to Adolescence. Chris continued to direct the 135 student Farm School while serving for a year as Pedagogical Principal of the Pre-K through 12th grade programs at Compass’s Golden, Colorado campus, during which time she implemented weekly Theory Meets Practice (TMP) meetings at all sub-planes, as well as optional, weekly, cross-level Friday Fireside Chats centered on Montessori readings. During her 4 years at Compass, Chris worked with the Farm School staff to develop the groundbreaking “”Working Village”” model of Montessori middle school.
Chris joined Great Work full time in June of 2014. Though her passions are many, she is achieving notoriety primarily for the single-mindedness and intractability with which she crusades for the dismantling of the corporate/industrial efficiency models that frame the public dialogue about education reform. Look for her blog posts and Twitter rants: @C_GreatWork
So, on October 26, 2016, we have a Great Work Montessori leadership page that has erased any record of its reported co-founders– and with any mention of James Walton also missing from the Great Work leadership page.
Even if the co-founders leave an organization, they are still co-founders, and one would think that their role as co-founders would be preserved as part of the history of the organization.
That is, unless the co-founders left the organization on bad terms– or unless the co-founders wanted to remain hidden from public view.
Of course, there is also the possibility that the co-founders did not share equal clout over the operation of the organization– that perhaps one actually held more influence over the others and had some sort of final word.
With that “alpha co-founder” thought in mind, let us turn our attention to nonprofit tax forms.
There are three “Great Work” nonprofits worthy of note:
- Great Work, Inc. (EIN 46-3184270), located in… wait for it… Bentonville, Arkansas, and granted nonprofit status in June 2014
- Great Work Education Holdings, Inc. (EIN 47-1688990), also located in Bentonville, Arkansas, and granted nonprofit status in May 2015
- Great Work Montessori Learning Community, Inc. (EIN 47-1688990), located at 6001 W 16TH AVE, LAKEWOOD CO, and granted nonprofit status in November 2015
Great Work Montessori Learning Community has no tax forms on file yet. The contact person is identified as Chris von Lersner.
Great Work Education Holdings has one tax form: great-work-ed-holdings-2014-990
According to the 2013 Great Work, Inc., tax form, Great Work, Inc., was started on August 07, 2013, with a $93,000 contribution. (That contribution came from the Walton Family Foundation according to its 2013 annual report.)
The Great Work, Inc., tax form was prepared by Walton Enterprises– which happens to have the same address as Great Work, Inc.: P.O. Box 1860, Bentonville, AR 72712.
The organization’s primary exempt purpose is noted as follows:
GREAT WORK, INC. IS ORGANIZED TO PROMOTE AND DEVELOP THE ART AND SCIENCE OF MONTESSORI EDUCATION AND GUIDE THE PREPARATION OF EDUCATORS WHO TRANSFORM LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS, AND TO CONDUCT SUCH OTHER RELATED EDUCATIONAL, CHARITABLE AND SCIENTIFIC ACTIVITIES AS MAY BE DETERMINED BY THE CORPORATION’S BOARD OF DIRECTORS.
The Great Work, Inc., board of directors is listed as follows:
- James Walton, executive director
- Naccaman Williams, secretary
- Rick Chapman, Assistant Secretary
- Bob Smith, Treasurer
Naccaman Williams is the “special interest programs director” for the Walton Family Foundation. Bob Smith is the accounting and operations director of the Walton Family Foundation. Rick Chapman is (was?) the Walton Family Foundation chief financial officer.
Great Work, Inc., could not be more Walton.
Not one board member from Colorado.
In addition to the statement of purpose noted in 2013, the Great Work, Inc. 2014 tax form includes the following mission statement:
GREAT WORK PROMOTES AND HELPS TO DEVELOP MONTESSORI EDUCATION, PREPARES MONTESSORI EDUCATORS, AND CONDUCTS OTHER RELATED EDUCATIONAL, CHARITABLE, AND SCIENTIFIC ACTIVITIES
In 2014, Great Work, Inc., received $289,500 in contributions and grants. It had the same board members (steeped in Walton).
Meanwhile, on July 01, 2014, James Walton et al. created Great Work Education Holdings, Inc., which is in the name of Robbie Treat, who is identified as affiliated with Walton Enterprises Incorporated.
Great Work Education Holdings, Inc., shares the same address as Walton Enterprises, and Walton Enterprises is responsible for preparing the Great Work Education Holdings, Inc., tax forms.
(Note that on the Great Work, Inc., 2014 tax form, Great Work Education Holdings is listed as a related organization– but with a Golden, Colorado, address that leads to an “agent” at this Denver address.)
Its 2014 tax form includes $920,271 in contributions and grants. Since Great Work Education Holdings is a private foundation, it must disclose its contributors.
First, Great Work Education Holdings must name any individual who contributed more than 2% of the total contributions. There is only one name: James Walton.
Moreover, there are only two contributors: The Walton Family Foundation ($50,271), and James M. Walton ($840,000).
The money was spent as follows:
- $840,709: Purchase of property for maintenance and use for other nonprofit organizations.
- $37,269: Writing a book that will capture the history of the Family Star organization in Colorado, and other Montessori-related research and endeavors.
The chief purpose of Great Work Education Holdings, Inc., is to purchase land and buildings. In 2014, Great Work Education Holdings, Inc., purchased the following in Colorado:
- 1600 W. 16th building: $269,332
- 1600 Ingalls: $426,352
- 1600 W. 16th land: $145,025
This is the property on which Great Work Montessori sits. (Note that 1600 W. 16th is the Great Work address, with the 1600 Ingalls property contiguous to the 1600 W. 16th address.)
The short of it is that James Walton is the Great Work Montessori landlord. There is also a hierarchy among the nonprofits, as per this note on the Great Work, Inc., 2014 tax form:
GREAT WORK EDUCATION HOLDINGS, A NONPROFIT CORPORATION (“GWEH”), IS THE CORPORATE MEMBER OFTHE [Great Work, Inc.,] ORGANIZATION…
GWEH HAS THE POWER TO APPOINT DIRECTORS OF THE [Great Work, Inc.,] ORGANIZATION THAT ARE FIRST PROPOSED BY THE [Great Work, Inc.,] ORGANIZATION’S BOARD OF DIRECTORS
GWEH ALSO HAS THE POWER TO APPROVE CERTAIN EXTRAORDINARY ACTIONS, INCLUDING MERGER, DISSOLUTION OR SUBSTANTIAL DISPOSITION OF ALL THE ASSETS OF THE ORGANIZATION
What this means is that it is possible for James Walton (and the entire Walton board of Great Work, Inc.,] to seemingly disappear/ relinquish control of Great Work, Inc., when in reality, the Walton influence still calls the Great Work, Inc., shots from the shadows of Great Work Education Holdings, Inc.
Pause and think about that.
As of 2014, Great Work Education Holdings, Inc., has the same Walton-infested board as does Great Work, Inc., (with James Walton named as the president) plus one individual with a Colorado address: 44 Cook Street, Suite 255, Denver, CO 80206.
The Cook Street property is registered to the Walton Family Foundation.
These “grass roots” are either falsified or usurped.
Arkansas billionaire foot well into the Colorado Montessori door.
Neither Great Work, Inc., “co-founders” Daniel Marsh nor Chris von Lersner are even mentioned on the Great Work, Inc., or Great Work Education Holdings, Inc, tax forms.
However, von Lersner is listed as the agent associated with the newest Great Work nonprofit, Great Work Montessori Learning Center.
I contacted von Lersner to ask her about her departure and about James Walton’s role in Great Work. She was kind enough to respond to my inquiry in detail. For the sake of the length of this post, I have excerpted von Lersner’s response. However, I plan to release a more detailed account in a future post.
Below is von Lersner’s excerpted response:
I returned on May 5th, 2016, from a 3 day trip to Santa Fe, where I had been scouting a potential second training center site for Great Work. When I came to report my findings at a leadership team meeting on May 6, 2016, I was terminated … out of the blue… and told that it was my last day. I was informed of my termination by Brian Sense, the Executive Director of Great Work Inc., who said that it was the will of the board. The board, at the time, was comprised of James M. Walton, Cathy Lund (James’s Walton Family Foundation Program Officer), and Martha Urioste, a long time champion of Montessori in Colorado.
[Schneider’s note: Cathy Lund is the charter school project director for the Walton Family Foundation; Maria Urioste founded Family Star, the Montessori org about which Great Work Ed Holdings published a book on August 08, 2016, under the guise of Great Work Publishers.]
No reasons were given, and I acknowledge I failed to ask, as I truly believed I was in my right work and would finish my career at Great Work. I was completely dumbstruck. … Though I had invested my heart and soul and my own life’s savings into the work of our organization – I never heard a word of warning, or of thanks, or of regret from any member of the board.
In the 6 months since my termination, I have come to believe that it could only be explained by the fact that the robust ideological debate that I had been enjoying with an apparently very thoughtful and deliberative James had long since been resolved in James’s mind. I think it is fair to say that, for years, I was the primary voice of dissent within the organization – of pressure to think beyond the assumption that our school and training had to be bankrolled either exclusively by James, or by the public. I was certain we could find a creative way to finance a Public Possibility School that was an authentic and unconstrained demonstration of what Montessori is capable of. I was determined to develop accountability measures to support our thesis, and made great strides in developing and testing observation and reporting tools to that end. (See:www.growDOGgrow). Over time, there were fewer and fewer voices within our organization willing to stand up to James’s assumption (with which I strenuously disagree) that a radically different educational paradigm can be demonstrated within the accountability constraints of the old paradigm. More and more, James found Montessori practitioners among the communities that I introduced him to who were willing to acquiesce. …
It also appears that James sees himself as a generous patron of his employees…rather than as an employer paying a fair wage for a monumental commitment. Daniel and I had several conversations in which James was insisting we begin to monetize and justify our work – conversations in which James was truly offended by the notion that we were working to school him: in pedagogy, in school operations, and in education policy. James does not like to be perceived to be a learner. He is convinced he has a 30,000 foot perspective that most ordinary humans are incapable of. When things don’t go his way, he takes offense that his generosity does not guarantee loyalty to his vision. …
I discovered on the morning of May 7th that ownership of all of my Google emails and Google documents had been transferred to Brian Sense, without my knowledge or permission, on the day prior to my termination – according to Mr. Sense, at the behest of the HR department of the WFF in Bentonville. Mr Walton’s attorneys, Holland & Hart, ensured that I was served severance papers immediately upon receiving news of my termination. …
Less than 2 weeks after my termination, when I was putting out feelers to find work, and still struggling with how to publicly explain my sudden lack of employment, I learned that James had already shared news of the termination … with a former student of ours – a young man whose parents both work in different parts of the Colorado Montessori world and who quickly got wind of my situation, and a prominent member of the national Montessori community. It became increasingly clear that it would be difficult for me to find work if James was in charge of the narrative.
When, in June, Mr. Sense alerted me to the fact that I had missed the severance signing deadline, he also said that, in case I were ready to sign, he had “bought a few days’ grace period” from the board. Grateful for the latitude they were giving me, I also wanted to be clear that I could only sign the non-disparagement agreement if it could be re-drafted to protect me as much as it protected all the Waltons and the WFF. The response from the board was immediate: “Never mind.” The opportunity to receive severance pay in exchange for commitment to no-disparagement was withdrawn.
It is clear from the details of this post that James Walton’s “interest” in the Colorado Montessori community equals James Walton’s control of that community.
Moreover, when any Walton/ non-Walton relationships go sour (and they will), the Waltons will be the much more powerful, much more protected party.
More to come.