Denver Advisory Committee Trashes Great Work Charter Application
Great Work Montessori School (GWMS) has submitted this 738-page charter school application to the Jefferson County (Denver) Board of Education (Jeffco) in order to gain approval for the school.
The Jeffco Board is scheduled to vote on the GWMS charter on November 03, 2016.
On October 29, 2016, I tried to access this link for what was supposedly a 61-page Jefferson County District Accountability Review (DAC) of the Great Work Montessori charter application. However, the link does not work. (I later learned it still works for others. Go figure.)
It seems that later the same day, the DAC issued another, briefer, report on the Great Work Montessori charter application, this one only 10 pages long and named the “final GWMS review.”
The 10-page, “final” DAC report is a scathing commentary on a charter school that, among other issues, caters to Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation (WFF) control at the expense of local, parental control (e.g., parental involvement on the board is clearly cosmetic, with parent board members having limited terms, no voting majority, and able to be dismissed from the board without reason).
From the October 29, 2016, DAC review of the GWMS charter application:
There are concerns about a self-perpetuating board that disenfranchises parents.
Board does not ensure parental/local control: GWMS governance shows a board that does not ensure local parents or even local community members can obtain a majority of the available seats. Anyone, from any area, regardless of ties to the school, can become a board member.
- “There are no minimum number of parents on the board.” (p76)
- “Future board members will be recruited in a manner consistent with identified priorities for areas of expertise, strengths, and sector experience.” (p. 81)
It takes until the FOURTH year (and final charter contract year) of the school’s operation to get a maximum of two elected positions on the five member governing board. The remaining majority members are founding members or a founding members’ appointee. The proposed charter contract is only four years. None of the elected or appointed seats are designated for a parent at GWMS or a local community member around GWMS. An elected or appointed board member can be anyone, from anywhere, as noted above.
To serve Year 1 & Year 2 through April:, “all seats are held by founding committee members.” (p. 79) No parents or community members are designated in this group.
To serve Year Three: “…and parents shall elect one Board Member.” (p.79) Still only one (non-founding) board member is elected. No parent designation or local community member designation is guaranteed on the board. Only one elected position by the school community on a committee of five founding members to serve in year three of the school’s operation.
To serve Year Four: “parents will elect one Board Member and the Board will appoint one Board Member.” (p. 79) Parents can vote for a possible second member on the board to serve in year four of operation.
To serve Year Five: “the Board will appoint one Board Member.” (p.79) A non-elected board member does not represent the families of GWMS. This still does not designate board members as parents. Board membership still has no restrictions on who can be a member. Year five is also out of contract. The charter contract is proposed at four years.
“If the number of candidates running for the Board of Directors is equal to the number of seats available, the seat(s) will be deemed vacant and the Board shall appoint a Board Member to fill each vacancy.” There is a concern this process could continue to disenfranchise parents.
Longer terms for non elected/founding board members:
Founding Board members can stay for a possible 4 or 5 year term and can be re-appointed or re-elected repeatedly, but elected members can only serve for a maximum of three years.
- “The term of each Director (Board Member) elected by the parents shall be three (3) years.” (p.79)
- Founding board members are given access to an infinite term: “Nothing in this section shall prohibit a founding Board Member from seeking reelection or reappointment, in accordance with these bylaws, at the expiration of his or her initial term.” (p. 79)
Additionally, after the three year term is complete, a maximum of two of the three founding members (or possibly four founding members if the optional member is added) may step down from the board in any given year, if desired. Only one must go, but two can cycle out at the end of their term. This formula allows for the possibility of one original founding member to stay for four years and a second founding member to stay for five.
Additional concerns include:
- Parent board members can be removed without cause.
- Board meetings can occur out-of-state with twenty-four hours notice. CORA is observed by giving notes to non-attendees. (i.e. the three founding members can meet out-of-state and create a quorum. They can make decisions without parent input. Meeting notes will serve to inform parents of their decisions.)
- The two non-founding member board members can be anyone. The governance does not require the board member to be a parent or even a local community member.
- One additional (non-parent) board member can be added along with the original three founding majority members, potentially creating four founding members and two parents/other members.
- Self-perpetuating board never allows non-founding members, parents, or community members to gain a majority vote.
- Despite proposed high ELL/minority enrollment, no effort to encourage minority/diversity place on board.
- Consideration for accommodations suggested for Spanish speaking/ FRL parents (i.e. board members are required to read certain Montessori books that are not available to them for free, on tape or in Spanish. Board meetings might need an interpreter.) For a school focusing on a high-poverty, high ELL area, these are relevant accommodation for further discussion.
A majority vote of the members has the ability to alter the Articles of Incorporation, change the by-laws, make hiring/firing decisions, and other key responsibilities. In a grass-roots, community-run school, parents should have a majority stake in how the school is run. [Emphasis added for final two statements.]
I have been researching the nonprofits under the Great Work umbrella, and from information on the tax forms alone, it is clear that a single individual drives Great Work– Walmart grandson, James Walton. DAC does not mention James Walton by name (nor does the GWMS charter application), but DAC does focus on the fact that the drafters of the GWMS application intentionally hid the oversized WFF role:
GWMS has ties to the out-of-state Walton family and Walmart Enterprises LLC through their property services company, TGNA Holdings LLC. This relationship was not previously disclosed.
GWMS has partnered with TGNA for their property services. GWMS claims TGNA is “a local property development group…with a mission to make affordable facilities for schools serving diverse and underserved populations.” (pg 111). No digital footprint exists after cursory internet searches for TGNA or the real estate agent, Zach Burnett. Further research on the Colorado Secretary of State (CO SOS) website shows TGNA Holdings LLC is a business filed under Kelli Eccleston, using the same legal filing address as Walton Enterprises LLC. Kelli Eccleston is also a filing agent for Walton Enterprises LLC. Walton Enterprises LLC is registered through the Arkansas Secretary of State (AR SOS). TGNA Holdings LLC. was formed on 5/28/2015.
TGNA Holdings LLC is registered as a “Foreign LLC” not a “Domestic LLC”, which means it was formed in one state (Colorado) but is now carrying out business, or wishes to carry out business, in another state (i.e Arkansas). This creates questions as to whether TGNA Holdings LLC is a “local property development” company as described in GWMS’ proposal. In conjunction with concerns regarding governance and out-of-state meetings, additional conversations defining operations are recommended.
The GWMS proposal included a letter from TGNA with Zach Burnett as the realtor for the property. Under the Colorado Division of Real Estate, no record for any type of real estate license exists for a last name of Burnett with either a first or middle name with Z, Zach, Zachery or any other name beginning with Z .
While there is nothing illegal about the Walton Enterprises LLC setting up a company to buy real estate and charge GWMS property services, (16% of GWMS’ current budget goes toward purchased property services) the new information may warrant additional conversations.
More to come in this post about TGNA Holdings.
The DAC actually taps into the degree of Walton control over this proposed school in its next statement about the incestuous relationships among the Great Work nonprofits; however, they miss including Great Work Education Holdings:
There are concerns regarding possible legal entanglements between Great Works, Inc. (GWI), Great Works Montessori Learning Center (GWMLC) and Great Works Montessori School (GWMS). The DAC recommends additional discussions to define distinct boundaries to ensure legal compliance to Colorado Statute.
As detailed in my October 27, 2016, post, James Walton himself purchased the land for the Great Work Montessori Learning Center via another Great Work nonprofit, Great Work Educational Holdings (GWEH). James Walton is executive director of GWEH, which also paid for and published a book on Montessori and which is the nonprofit to which a second nonprofit, Great Work, Inc., must answer.
Originally, James Walton was executive director of Great Work, Inc., and originally, the boards of both nonprofits were fully tied to James Walton, Walton Enterprises, and the Walton Family Foundation (WFF). However, the beauty of the behind-the-scenes GWEH is that it allows for the appearance of no Walton connection on future boards of directors of Great Work, Inc., even as Great Work, Inc., must answer to GWEH (so saith the Great Work, Inc., 2014 tax form).
In investigating the degree of James Walton’s control over Great Work, I requested an on-the-record email interview with an individual identified as a Great Work co-founder: Chris von Lersner. von Lersner is identified as one of two co-founders once identified on the greatworkmontessori.org website. (Note that both named co-founders had disappeared from that website by October 26, 2016.)
In an email dated October 26, 2016, I asked von Lernser three questions:
- Who were the original founders of Great Work Inc? Great Work Montessori? Specifically, what was James Walton’s role in establishing Great Work?
- When did you leave Great Work, and under what circumstances?
- How much property is owned by Great Work or in the name of Great Work? Is Great Work trying to accumulate property around its 6001 W. 16th Ave. (Lakewood) and 5703 W. 25th Ave. (Edgewater) addresses, or in any other targeted areas in Colorado? Is James Walton the principal purchaser of these properties? If not, who is?
I invited von Lersner to answer in as much or as little detail as she wished. Note that I included excerpts from her response to the second question (re: her departure from Great Work) as part of my October 27, 2016, post linked above.
Although it makes for a very long post, I include in this post more details from von Lersner’s response to my October 26,2016, email because the details she offers provide a more insight into the DAC concerns about a charter school board that is set to serve out-of-state interests, with the out-of-state interest in the spotlight being that of the Arkansas-based, billionaire Walton family.
First is von Lersner’s response to the founding of Great Work and James Walton’s role:
The organization that eventually became incorporated as Great Work, Inc. was the inspiration of Kristy Cash, who was serving as High School Program Director at Compass Montessori High School during the time that James M. Walton was serving as a teaching intern. Kristy, who was James’s boss and mentor, had been pressed for years, by educators touring the school, to consider creating some sort of professional development or training to help people understand how her secondary program had been developed, and to give them the tools to develop similar Montessori-informed secondary programs. During James’s time at Compass, Kristy made a preliminary proposal to the Compass Board of Directors, who were quite enthusiastic for a training centered at our school. The proposed training languished, however, primarily due to lack of funding.
During the period of his internship, James began to assert that more young people should have access to this type of education. He showed a great deal of interest in the talk of creating a Montessori secondary training. In the year after his intern year, he succeeded in convincing several Compass secondary staff to consider stepping out of their roles at Compass to form an organization dedicated to actualizing this vision. Over time, the vision expanded, both for pedagogical reasons and because James pressed us to “think big,” to a vision of a full birth to 18 training center co-located with a birth-to-18 lab school that demonstrated the powerful possibilities of Montessori implementation unconstrained by standardized testing.
The first two individuals to step out of Compass were Daniel Marsh (a brilliant policy and research mind, who was then serving as the High School Math teacher), and Jason Heminger, who had been serving as the farmer for the Middle School (Farm School) program. I stayed on at Compass an additional year, in the role of Pedagogical Principal for the Golden Campus, and Kristy stayed on two additional years, eventually finishing as Principal of the Golden campus.
Both Kristy and I consulted with the full time founders throughout, as we were both figuratively and practically the “moms” … the pedagogical and the operational/organizational drivers of the organization. Because the model we were envisioning involved placing trainees into practical internships at Compass and eventually into other Montessori secondary programs, keeping our feet in both lands and developing a fruitful and symbiotic relationship between the two organizations seemed crucial.
Great Work Inc., (GWI) recently filed the documents to do business also as Great Work Montessori. In the first 18 months of Great Work’s existence, James pressed us to consider a more open model, inviting numerous alternatives under the training tent following a model like Big Picture or Relay GSE. We eventually convinced him to “settle for” Montessori … largely because that was where our expertise, experience and passion were. [Emphasis added.]
Great Work Montessori Learning Community (GWMLC) was established in June of 2015, when James, presiding over a board meeting attended by a dozen supporters and collaborators who expected to celebrate passage of our training center/demo school strategic plan, unilaterally and shockingly made a motion that Great Work would not operate a school– this despite the fact that he and I had been meeting two or more times a week to discuss the developing strategic plan.
Less than a week later, James enlisted Amy Malik (the principal designate of our demo school) to be the principal of both GWMLC (the learning center) and GWMS (the charter school): the former being the private (tuition-funded) ECE (early childhood education unit, or preschool)….
By moving the school entities out from under GWI (Great Work Inc.), the funding question was put to rest. (GWMS would seek public funding as a charter school.) Together James and Amy filed for 501c3 status for the two new entities (learning center and charter school). All planning documents and branding and marketing materials and all associated staff were simply taken from GWI and made the property of GWMLC.
It was said that GWMS (the school) would lay fallow until the charter was approved. Those of us left behind at GWI were eventually told that we could continue to have a pedagogical relationship with the school, which we must develop through memoranda of understanding. I was briefly named Executive Director of GWMLC (the learning center/preschool), but this became cumbersome in Amy’s work, and I stepped into the role of president of the [GWMLC] board… a role which I held until April or May of 2016.
James put his [Walton Family Foundation (WFF)] program officer, Cathy Lund, at Amy’s service, to guide her through the process of preparing a grant application to the WFF that would quickly succeed in securing start-up funding. This funding made it possible to have the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector provide the bulk of the charter application content, to which Amy added local detail. [Emphasis added.]
Four items of note: First, James Walton “presided over” a Great Work board meeting, and in that position of control (keep in mind that two Great Work nonprofit boards were fully Walton-controlled at inception), James Walton announced there would be no school at that time.
Second, the entire Great Work venture is inextricably dependent upon James Walton’s desires and Walton Family Foundation support, both in planning/proceeding and in financing.
Third, the DAC notes that the proposed school is too dependent upon “soft money.” However, Great Work has always been dependent upon soft money– the wallet of James Walton and the resources of the tentacled WFF at this disposal.
Fourth, one of the DAC criticisms regarding the GWMS charter application concerns the shoddiness of the application itself:
Its bulk size, frequent typos, insertion of other school district names, and inconsistencies between sections suggest many writers may have been involved. Authors possibly utilized “cut-and-paste” boilerplate.
von Lersner asserts that some degree of “cut and paste” did indeed happen, with National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector providing the “boiler plate.”
In other words, someone else did most of the GWMS charter app homework, yet none of the GWMS professionals who added info here and there were capable of unifying the error-ridden, Frankenstein document before advancing it to Jeffco as the GWMS first impression.
Next, as to my second question for von Lersner, regarding her departure. Some information will be repeated as it was included in brief at the close of my October 27, 2016, post:
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 WFF Charter Program Officer), and Martha Urioste, a long time champion of Montessori in Colorado.
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. Having served in educational leadership, I fully defend the right of an employer to take measures to remediate staff misconduct, to respond firmly to the failure of staff to carry out assigned responsibilities, to change organizational course and identify that certain staff are either no longer necessary to the mission or even counter-productive. At the same time, however, I feel very strongly that employers, (especially powerful employers), have the ethical responsibility to communicate their concerns in advance and help dedicated employees build a dignified bridge to a new professional reality.
The astonishingly punitive nature of my termination, befitting an egregious act of negligence or malfeasance, was completely incomprehensible. Though I regarded each one of those board members as a friend and a professional collaborator – though I had envisioned and commissioned the writing of Martha [Urioste’s] professional biography by a Great Work consultant, though I had been to Cathy’s husband’s funeral, though I had rocked with James’s parents and granddaughter on their porch in rural Arkansas (and designed the Great Work porch in Edgewater Colorado to echo its welcoming spirit), 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. [Emphasis added.]
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.
I can only believe that, as James was able to get at least silent concurrence from even my closest pedagogical colleagues, I was increasingly seen as a source of discord… increasingly becoming a liability to a belief system which, though now unequivocal, was never made an explicit condition of my employment…whose success would be threatened if the debate were not immediately cut off.
There was a charter application on the drawing board, and my guess is that James and Amy and Brian shared the belief that a dissenting voice within the pedagogical ranks was a threat to the approval process. [Emphasis added.]
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 [Marsh] 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 had always believed he relied on me to articulate a frank and uninhibited counterargument.
I had always believed that true leaders need that kind of devil’s advocate in their inner circles. I had absolutely no fear that an honest appraisal from a countervailing viewpoint would be punished. I was wrong. …
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.
…I felt unready to sign the non-disparagement papers on which 5 weeks of severance pay hinged. 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.
My final question to von Lersner concerns the accumulation of Great Work property and James Walton’s role in property acquisition.
Here is where details emerge regarding the origin of TGNA Holdings, as von Lersner reports:
During my tenure, Great Work purchased 3 properties through the corporate entity named TGNA (Totally Generic, Non-Affiliated) Holdings (incorporated in Delaware because of favorable tax laws). The properties are outlined in red on the attached map (see below). Two contiguous properties on the north side of W. 16th Ave., occupying the land between Ingalls and Harlan, and one property on the south side of W. 16th Avenue at the corner of Ingalls. The original plan was to “Tetris” a campus together by purchasing properties in that neighborhood, the demographically targeted area code of 80214, as they became available or we were able to “shake them loose.”
Despite having been briefly, and only nominally, Vice President of TGNA, I had no participation in establishing the corporation (except I recall having suggested the name, when James expressed plausible concern that if he were known to be purchasing multiple properties in the same neighborhood, the prices would rise), nor any knowledge of its mission, governance, financing, or budget. I was told I needed that official status so that I could be the agent of the company in any real estate closings that occurred when James was not in town.
We rented the westernmost upstairs unit at 5703 West 25th Avenue (also in 80214) privately- that is, the Edgewater office was not retained under Great Work’s name (see lease document below). If I recall correctly, the rationale was that James did not believe having a Great Work office in Golden and a Great Work office in Edgewater would pass the sniff test for a 501(c)(3) that wasn’t yet bringing in any revenue. That office was likewise furnished with James’ private funds, first by a huge shopping trip to Target, and eventually through purchases from my own private funds, made because I was for almost a year the sole occupant of the office at most times.
My name appeared on the lease with James’s because James was increasingly out of town for long periods of time and we wanted the landlord to consider me a legitimate tenant.
We several times inquired about the purchase price of the entire building, but the landlord was not eager to sell, and James regarded the potential ROI to be less promising than at the Harlan/16th Ave location.
My understanding is that a bigger piece of property, intended to house the school in its final iteration, has been purchased (in 80226, near the intersection of Sheridan and Morrison Avenues) since my departure from the organization. I have heard that a charette was held recently, moderated by an architecture firm, with Great Work employees enlisted to envision the campus in its end state.
Presumably there has been a course change in terms of why to abandon the 80212 neighborhood that had so long been the focus of our work. Over time it was increasingly clear that James was seeking a larger property that would maximize ROI, and that the “tetris-ing” strategy would not serve that purpose.
I recognize that my exit from this post is abrupt. However, what I have already offered merits book-chapter length and warrants reading and rereading to absorb its import.
On November 03, 2016, Jeffco will decide whether or not to open a charter school that is steeped in Arkansas-based Walton– and in James Walton, in particular.
This school will not be parent-directed.
If it materializes, it will belong to James Walton and his billionaire family’s Arkansas foundation.
Jeffco, pay attention to your DAC, and pay attention to me.