EducationNews

Executive director of Colorado Springs-based charter school placed on administrative leave

Author: Debbie Kelley, The Gazette - February 23, 2018 - Updated: February 23, 2018

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GOAL Academy Chief Academic Officer Richard Mestas. (Courtesy of the GOAL Academy website)

Richard Mestas, executive director and principal of GOAL Academy High School, the state’s largest alternative-education program, has been placed on paid administrative leave during an internal investigation, says the school’s attorney, Dustin Sparks of Monument.

Sparks said Thursday he is conducting the investigation.

“The board hopes to have this resolved in a week or two,” he said, and Mestas’ leave is for an indeterminate amount of time.

Sparks said he has no indication the investigation will rise to a criminal level.

Recent firings of other staff were not connected, he said.

“There have been terminations, all unrelated to this,” Sparks said.

Falcon School District 49, the charter authorizer for GOAL, was notified of the development last Friday, said spokesman David Nancarrow.

“As we understand it, that investigation is taking place currently, but we were not provided details on what the investigation was about,” Nancarrow said.

Mestas could not be reached for comment.

GOAL is authorized by Falcon District 49, but its headquarters are in Pueblo.

Mestas, a Pueblo native, had been acting as executive director since July 2016 before being named sole finalist for the position in February 2017.

He has been affiliated with GOAL, an acronym for Guided Online Academic Learning, since 2007, when he was principal of Dolores Huerta Preparatory High School, a charter school in Pueblo.

Dolores Huerta and GOAL, which became a separate school in 2008, were two of five charter schools in the Cesar Chavez School Network.

But the for-profit education management group experienced massive internal strife. At one point, Mestas was said to be held against his will in his office and physically threatened by the network’s chief executive officer.

The state education department threatened to close all the schools amid staff upheaval, financial mismanagement and allegations that Cesar Chavez School Network was misusing taxpayer money, based on an independent audit. Instead, the schools were released from the network in 2009 and allowed to operate independently.

The management network dissolved in 2010.

GOAL was authorized under the Colorado Charter School Institute but petitioned Falcon D-49 to come under its wing in 2012.

D-49’s board approved a three-year contract extension with GOAL on Feb. 8, accepting a revised budget of $31.3 million for this school year and requiring the school to remain in good academic standing.

GOAL had about 500 students in 2010. This school year, it has 3,811 in ninth through 12th grade, down from 4,347 in 2017. Students do online and in-person learning at one of 25 locations across the state, for tutoring and other needs.

Most students are seniors who are under-credited and older than traditional high school seniors. And 96 percent of students are considered “at risk,” meaning they have a history of truancy, criminal involvement, suspensions, substance use, psychiatric disorders, family troubles or other problems, documents show.

Under his tenure, Mestas improved student academic performance from “priority improvement” to “good standing” in 2016 and 2017 on the Colorado Department of Education’s performance rating system, which charts student performance on state standardized testing, academic growth and readiness for college or career after high school.

In addition to mentioning academic gains when they hired him, board members cited Mestas’ leadership in making staff changes and improving financial and management accountability.

Last spring, the school revised its vision and mission statements to focus on improving instructional quality instead of growth.

Erin Prater

Erin Prater is a producer for Colorado Politics. She is a multimedia journalist with 15 years of experience writing, editing and designing for newspapers, magazines, websites, publishing houses and businesses. Her previous positions include military reporter at The Gazette, general assignment reporter at The Huerfano County World, copy editor at David C. Cook publishing house and adjunct mass communication instructor at Pueblo Community College. Her bylines include The New York Times Upfront, The Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, S.D.), Military Spouse magazine and Omaha Magazine (Omaha, Neb.). Her syndicated bylines include The Denver Post, MSNBC.com, Military.com and wire services.