Independence Academy Charter School is plagued by a culture of fear, discrimination and retaliation that led to two federal discrimination investigations and staff turnover, current and former employees told The Daily Sentinel.
Teachers, custodians and administrators allege that an entrenched, self-elected Board of Directors and two former executive directors uninterested in addressing issues contributed to the school's problems.
Custodian Elizabeth Hazen and former music teacher Amanda Jackman said they filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because of age, sex and pregnancy discrimination. EEOC investigations are not considered public records, though school officials confirmed two ongoing cases.
Former custodian Gene Hazen said he resigned from the school after refusing to sign an employment contract that would force him to work 80-100 hour work weeks. He has an open case under the Fair Labor Standards Act for more than 3,000 hours of unpaid overtime work.
Board President Sherry Price denied any discrimination and said the school has had only a handful of complaints from employees or parents over the years.
Price also defended the Board of Directors decision to be self-elected and without term limits, citing institutional knowledge and the need for stability for capital construction bonds.
The reported problems at Independence Academy raise questions about the oversight of traditional public schools compared to public charter schools and whether some public schools play by different rules.
"There's so little check and balance in the charter school system that these people have gotten away with this for so long," said Jackman, the former music teacher. "If you're on the good list, it's fine. But, as soon as someone targets you, it's just a matter of time until you're gone."
Elizabeth and Gene Hazen have cared for Independence Academy for eight years, from cleaning to maintenance, landscaping and repairs.
Elizabeth and Gene said they came to love Independence Academy, mainly because of the teachers who were passionate about education and the students and parents who felt like family.
But their dedication came at a steep price.
The Hazens' employment was plagued by confusing contracts, exhausting overwork and injuries.
While they performed the functions of full-time employees, the Hazens said for years they were labeled as subcontractors so school leaders could avoid providing health insurance or benefits.
Gene Hazen said he worked more than 3,000 hours of unpaid overtime over five years, and Elizabeth worked nearly 1,000 hours of unpaid overtime.
A year ago, Gene said, he reached his limit. Former Executive Director Jarret Sharp asked him to sign an employment contract with no weekly hour limitations and expanded work requirements, setting the stage for more 80-hour work weeks. Gene wouldn't sign the contract.
A week later, Price tried to evict the Hazens and their two children from their home, which was on property owned by a corporation connected to the school, Independence Building Corp. The Hazens fought the move but were eventually evicted in March.
"I have busted every part of my body and given blood, sweat and tears because we love this place," Gene said. "I really only wanted to have 40 hours and an apology for the mistreatment; what I got was miscellaneous intermittent income, a broken family, mental anguish and a broken heart."
Elizabeth still works at Independence Academy, mainly because of an ongoing lawsuit to get treatment for a shoulder muscle she tore while digging trenches at the school. Since the injury more than a year ago, the school's insurance company has refused to pay for surgery, according to Elizabeth's lawyer, David Mueller.
Price declined to discuss the investigations other than to say that they're allegations and being litigated.
Since Hazen's injury and her husband's departure from the school, Hazen said she has had her job duties reduced in an effort to push her out and was at one point told the school could not accommodate her injury and thus did not have any work for her. Elizabeth links this treatment to her age, sex, injury and relationship to her husband.
Elizabeth said the job has brought her to her "breaking point" in the past year, but she is persisting with her cases.
"Ultimately, I want people to be treated better and I want them to follow the law. By standing up, I want it to get better for everyone who works there," she said.
Jackman filed a discrimination complaint after she came back from maternity leave and was told she couldn't return to teaching music.
Things were already tense at work after Jackman and her wife attended a Board of Directors meeting and asked questions regarding school finances. Once she told then- director Damon Lockhart that she was pregnant and would be out on maternity leave for the first part of the fall 2018 semester, things got worse.
Jackman says she was told repeatedly how much of an inconvenience she was causing, and school leaders eliminated four of her six classes for the next year instead of finding substitutes. When she returned from maternity leave in October 2018, Jackman was told her classes had been taken over by another teacher and she couldn't have them back.
"I was told it was my choice to get pregnant, and I was offered a contract for a 'roving teacher,' which is basically a teacher aide," Jackman said.
Price declined to discuss either Jackman's or Hazen's case, citing ongoing litigation. Price added that she has never witnessed discrimination at the school.
"The culture of acceptance and diversity is one that we definitely perpetuate and encourage and expect in our school and anything to the contrary is evaluated thoroughly and addressed if necessary," Price said.
Jackman said she thinks her experience of discrimination is one of many at the school.
"They create an environment of fear and intimidation that makes it impossible to feel safe and appreciated as an employee," Jackman said. "Everyone is scared that they will lose their jobs all the time. People just close their classroom doors and do their jobs, afraid to trust anyone and uncomfortable speaking their minds about anything for fear of retaliation."
Dan Bollinger, a former Independence administrator, said he saw teachers pushed out by board members or executive directors for raising concerns about the school.
Bollinger is now a middle school teacher in District 51. He shares a name with Palisade High School's principal.
"The concerns were that the board of directors were not running the board legally or ethically, that board members would push agendas through with staff, that members of the board would make staff feel unwelcome and would often have outside (not publicly posted) meetings," Bollinger said. "Any time teachers shared concerns, soon that teacher was pushed out. It's far from a few grumpy people. This is a great many people."
Bollinger said he stayed at Independence for 10 years because of the great teachers and students.
"The connection I was able to make with those families and kids was profound," he said. "Some of the staff there were the most amazing teachers I've worked with in my entire life, and I stayed because I wanted to try to fix it from the inside. I felt like I could be part of something wonderful and amazing, and I didn't want to let it go without a fight."
But soon, Bollinger was also pushed out. He applied to be executive director in March 2018, and within 24 hours was told he would not be considered for the job and could either resign or be fired.
The allegations are in stark contrast to how Price views the school from her position as board president.
"I can tell you that in the history of our school, the number of disgruntlements have been a handful, and that includes educators as well as parents," Price said. "It's not typical for us to receive those and when we do, we address them and respond to them very quickly."
The allegations have not impacted the school, Price said, with family participation as strong as ever and growing student enrollment.
But emails between the Board of Directors and former Executive Director Sharp obtained through a public records request suggest frustration with the employee complaints. Sharp resigned in May after one year on the job "to pursue other opportunities," Price said.
In a Feb. 11 email to the board, Sharp writes that the Hazens' EEOC complaint was elevated to the federal office in Denver, with Sharp as the only person named on the claim.
"So (expletive) tired of this stuff. I really am. Trying to do my best," Sharp wrote.
Price and board member Abbie Siegmund responded with encouragement.
"Don't get discouraged! That's what they're trying to do — attempting to get us/you so frustrated and angry that we just give up," Siegmund wrote. "The law is on your side, as are we! Let your morals and ethics stand tall."
Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, a membership and advocacy organization, said charters are just as accountable as traditional public schools.
Charters are accountable to the same financial, academic performance and transparency laws as well as to their own boards and charter contracts, which are through school districts or state authorizers, Schaller said.
Independence Academy teachers and staff said they felt frustrated by management structure that was resistant to change and left them without recourse.
Price, Siegmund and other board members Mike Holmes, Hadassa Berger and Brad Thompson have been on Independence Academy's Board of Directors for at least five years, according to Price.
Board members are self-elected — meaning they vote to keep themselves on the board — and do not have term limits, practices that were criticized by current and former employees as perpetuating the school's problems.
Price defended the policy as something that ensures stability and guarantees institutional knowledge. The school's bond company also required stable leadership in order to give the school money to build a new campus in 2014, she said.
Price said she's been on the board since before it was chartered, which was in 2004, according to Daily Sentinel archives.
By comparison, at Caprock Academy, another local charter school, the Board of Directors is elected by school families and staff, said President Tim Fry. Board members serve three-year terms and each family in the school has one vote, as do school employees. The board does not have term limits.
Price said Independence Academy board members have an open dialogue with teachers, staff and families.
"We have a pretty open door policy and an opportunity for public comment as well as direct communication from teachers and educators in our building," Price said. "And we've held forums with educators as well to provide us feedback regarding the culture of our school, and the board is extremely open to that and responsive to that."
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that former music teacher Amanda Jackman was on maternity leave in 2018.