This is an investigative report I did for the Green Valley News and Sahuarita Sun on a troubled charter district with schools in Sahuarita and Tucson. It was published online on July 24, 2015 and in print on July 26.
A charter school is preparing for its fifth year in Sahuarita in the face of dozens of allegations by former teachers and parents of poor management, shoddy record-keeping, high teacher turnover and poor treatment by its founder.
Lifelong Learning Research Institute, which holds charters for Jack Thoman Air and Space Academy and the Digital Technology Academy, both in Sahuarita, as well as Lifelong Learning Academy in Tucson, also has been the target of investigations by federal and state labor boards and the subject of several complaints filed with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools that have gone unanswered by founder Mary Lou Klem.
Interviews with former teachers and administrators and with parents of former students, along with public records, internal school documents, police reports and performance reviews paint a picture of an organization struggling with high teacher and staff turnover brought on by what they call hostile work conditions and unresponsive leadership.
Former employees who talked about the schools with the Green Valley News said many of the problems stem from Klem, whose management style was described by several as “abusive.” They said she berated staff and teachers in private and in front of students, and cultivated a climate of fear and intimidation through threats to call police or file lawsuits.
Lifelong Learning Research Institute opened in Tucson with one school in 2002. Digital Technology Academy opened in Green Valley in 2010 under a separate charter, and Air and Space followed in Sahuarita in 2011. Lifelong also runs a preschool at its Sahuarita campus. Both Sahuarita schools operate out of the same building in Madera Marketplace, east of Walmart, though Klem said Digital Technology Academy will move to Tucson this fall. School starts Aug. 3.
Klem, her husband, Robert Klem, and Shirley Williamson — who former employees said ran the lunch program — are the only members of the schools’ governing board, according to the state charter board.
Former employees of the three charter schools said the Klems ran the organization through intimidation tactics and threats.
Carol Webb, a former administrator at Digital, said Klem subjected employees to “abusive” treatment, costing the schools several employees and at least one administrator.
Webb, who previously worked for the Sahuarita Unified School District, quit Lifelong after she was transferred to Air and Space, where she called the treatment “unbearable.” Webb said Klem berated her for the way she dressed and that Klem accused her of stealing a steel drum case. Klem denies she made the theft allegation.
“There’s no other word for her but bully,” said Sharri Cagle, who worked closely with Klem as the paid parent liaison for Air and Space in 2011. “She’s a grown-up bully.”
Juanita Duarte, who taught at both Air and Space Academy and Lifelong Learning Academy, said she witnessed Mary Lou Klem berate an Air and Space teacher in front of staff after his students fell behind while he was out for health issues. She said teachers at the Tucson school who were fed up with Klem’s management style tried to get her to join a walkout. She declined and the walkout never happened, she said.
Teresa Bullard, a former teacher at Lifelong Learning Academy, said Robert Klem came into her classroom and swore at a student because the student was holding a pencil near a wall and could have put a mark on it. Bullard said she was shocked and told him the student was not doing anything wrong.
Bullard said she was fired in April 2014 by Mary Lou Klem, who called sheriff’s deputies to escort her from the property. A Pima County Sheriff’s report notes that Bullard’s demeanor was calm even though Klem accused her of “yelling and tearing things off the walls” in the report.
Bullard, who now works at another Tucson charter school, said she was let go for failing to produce lesson plans Klem had asked for, even though they were never a requirement in the past. Bullard said it was an excuse to fire her for reasons that still aren’t clear to her.
Duarte said she was fired by Klem around the same time, also for not producing lesson plans going back to when she was hired in 2012. She now works as a special education teacher at a Tucson public school.
The request from Klem came at the same time the schools were undergoing an evaluation by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools that determined they fell below standards in every area they looked at, including lesson planning.
In an emailed response to allegations, Klem said, “We believe creating an environment with clear expectations for employees is in the best interest of our students, and we provide regular feedback in a formal and honest manner to staff members to ensure that they understand these expectations.”
The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools produced six complaints against Lifelong schools in Tucson and Sahuarita. Former teachers and parents said there should be far more on file, and said many of their complaints went unanswered by the schools and were not investigated by the state board. One parent’s complaint in 2014 was not properly filed by the charter board until a reporter asked about its status last month.
In several of the six reports, Klem repeatedly failed to address parent concerns and ignored emails, letters, office visits and phone calls from parents and letters from the state charter board requesting action.
One parent said a staff member at the Tucson campus hung up on her husband when he tried to get information on a playground accident involving their child.
Another parent said she had sent Mary Lou Klem emails about a playground incident involving her daughter, according to a letter to the charter schools board. When she reached Klem by phone, “she said she did not have time to read her emails,” according to the letter, obtained through a public records request. Klem was contacted twice by mail by the state and at one point said she would address the incident but never did, according to records.
Several months after the incident, the state charter board’s director of government and financial affairs contacted the parents and said, “As you know, we have tried to act as a facilitator regarding this issue and also have not gotten a response from Ms. Klem regarding the specific incident …” She then offered to help the family find “another school that may better suit your needs.”
Bianca Ulibarri, an executive assistant with the state charter schools board, said they don’t deal with personnel issues, instead focusing on whether curriculum conforms to state standards.
“If the concerns are regarding ‘the teacher is mean to my student,’ then we don’t provide oversight over employees or personnel,” said Ulibarri, who is also listed as a constituent services specialist by the board. She said there is no penalty if a charter school does not respond to a complaint.
Whitney Chapa, the board’s executive director, said matters of personnel complaints are not within the board’s scope of oversight.
Duarte, Bullard and Cagle said they attempted to file complaints with the state charter board and never received responses.
“[The charter board] gave me the runaround when I tried to file a complaint,” Duarte said.
Ulibarri said the online system that the board uses to receive complaints was put in place this year and will only indicate complaints in the system going forward.
In the classroom
Formers teachers and parents said Klem’s management style took its toll and teacher turnover was high. Klem, in an email late Friday, said her teacher turnover rate “is similar to that of other schools throughout Arizona.”
Melissa King, whose children attended Air and Space until May, said her special-needs son went through seven teachers last school year. She said her daughter’s fourth-grade teacher quit halfway through the school year.
King said her son’s last teacher told her she “would never work for Klem’s schools again.”
Duarte said she was hired to teach third grade at Air and Space in Sahuarita in 2012, but was moved to a combined seventh and eighth grade class that October after that teacher quit. The subsequent third-grade teacher quit shortly afterward, too, she said, along with the teacher she berated in front of staff.
Debra Luedtke, who has been executive assistant for Air and Space since April, said claims of teachers quitting are exaggerated but did not elaborate.
Cagle, the parent liaison in 2011, a paid position, said that when she helped set up the school, Klem and the administration did not provide the curriculum when she asked for it.
“I was feeling bad for teachers because they didn’t have the tools they needed to teach,” Cagle said. She said then-principal Irma Celez was “maybe there five percent” of the time.
“It was awful for kids to think that I was the principal,” Cagle said. “It was a joke. I was there all the time and she wasn’t.”
A September 2014 report from the state charter schools board delivered a scathing critique of the operations at Lifelong’s Sahuarita schools following a site visit. The report evaluated the charter schools as “falls far below” — the lowest mark on progress — in curriculum, monitoring instruction, assessment and professional development.
The report — called a Demonstration of Sufficient Progress — noted that the charter schools “provided evidence of disjointed efforts” to develop curriculum in step with state standards.
Air and Space and Digital ultimately were not rated by the charter board, which Chapa said indicates the equivalent of a low rating.
“For schools that are not rated on our dash board, they are treated as if they do not meet [for academic performance],” Chapa said.
The state sees it differently. Air and Space currently has an “A” rating from the Arizona Department of Education’s letter grading system, which indicates that it demonstrates an “excellent level of performance,” according to an ADE guide for parents. Digital did not receive a letter grade from ADE.
Lifelong in Tucson holds a “B” rating from ADE and a “meets standard” rating from the state charter board.
The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools report for Air and Space and Digital also stated that the schools did not provide evidence that teachers are formally evaluated or that it works with teachers to improve performance.
Duarte and Bullard said they were given little guidance from administration on what curriculum to teach. Duarte said she had to research state standards online on her own time to come up with lesson plans.
“As a teacher, I had zero support and I was left on my own,” Bullard said of the Tucson school. “There were no curriculum or lesson plans and the previous teacher didn’t have anything to give me.”
Bullard, who worked at the school from December 2013 until April 2014, said this made the demand for lesson plans by Klem seem more like an excuse to get rid of her.
Nikki Billings, who teaches a combined fifth and sixth grade class at Air and Space, said Klem has never treated her poorly and has been professional with her.
“I’m very happy,” she said. “I’ve worked here for three years. I have no problems with [Air and Space].”
Hunter Roberts had plenty of problems with Air and Space.
He and his wife, Christina, enrolled their daughter in a second grade class in fall 2014, after being sold on the small class sizes and curriculum the school advertised.
Roberts said they liked their daughter’s teacher but that she quit abruptly in late September, just a couple of months into the school year. When he contacted the teacher, she told him she left because of Klem, he said.
In a meeting with Klem, Roberts said he confronted her about the ex-teacher’s complaints about how she was treated. He said Klem seemed caught off guard and that she did not follow up on the meeting.
Roberts pulled his daughter out of the school in October 2014, and launched a Facebook group with other parents at Air and Space Academy in which they voiced their grievances against Klem and the school. Soon, former teachers and administrators from Lifelong joined the group and chimed in, complaining of the situation at Lifelong schools.
Roberts said he went to the school and sought board minutes, which are public record, but Lifelong would not provide them. He said the Klems threatened to the call the police if he did not leave. Roberts filed a complaint with state charter schools board that month, listing grievances ranging from a hostile environment to a failure to provide him with public records.
Ulibarri said Roberts’ complaint fell outside the state charter board’s purview so it was forwarded to Klem, and the board gave her a deadline to respond. Roberts said he still hasn’t received a response.
The state charter schools board didn’t put Roberts’ letter in their file on Lifelong’s Sahuarita charter until an inquiry from a reporter in June. Before that, the board said there were no complaints against the schools but has since turned over six.
In claims with the state Labor Department, which is part of the Industrial Commission of Arizona, two employees of Lifelong cited “hostile work environment” as their reasons for quitting. One claim includes a 2010 email exchange between Mary Lou Klem and a Lifelong Learning Academy teacher who had quit. The teacher emailed Klem to ask why she hadn’t received her $175 paycheck.
Klem responded: “You are a liar. You were not hired by Lifelong Learning Academy. We will be reporting you to DES for fraud through our school lawyer.”
The ICA found in favor of the teacher and ordered Klem to pay.
Five claims were filed with the ICA from 2010 to 2014 against Lifelong. The claims come from former teachers and a former principal at Lifelong Learning Academy, according to ICA records.
The Labor Department determined in favor of Lifelong in one case, and one was tossed because it was not filed within statutory time limits. Lifelong was order to pay teachers in the other three cases. Klem told the Green Valley News she is “not aware of five labor claims,” but added, “we have learned from these situations and feel our school is stronger for it.”
One of those cases involved Bullard, who filed a complaint in 2014 after she was fired. The charter holder was ordered to pay her about $580, though Bullard said she has yet to see the money. Klem never responded to notices from the Labor Department, according to ICA documents.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division launched an investigation into unpaid overtime at Air and Space Academy, according to Jesus Oliveras, a spokesman for the federal agency’s Phoenix office.
Oliveras said the investigation, conducted by the department’s Tucson office, determined that the school owed $4,637 in back wages to 15 employees. He said the school has since paid up.
Klem answered about a half of the dozen questions emailed to her July 1 by a reporter then twice put off phone interviews, finally saying through a staff member that she could talk when school opened Aug. 3. She then answered the rest of the questions in an email sent late evening July 24.
In Klem’s emailed responses, she attributed the labor complaints to a former site administrator and a case of nepotism, which she did not clarify when asked. She also did not specify whether she was referring to the state or federal investigations.
In the state labor claims, there is no indication the five claimants are related. Bullard said it was Klem she dealt with at the Tucson location, not another site administrator. Klem also responded to all of the state labor claims except for Bullard’s.
Donna Grimes, a former teacher at Air and Space, filed a civil complaint in September 2014 through Green Valley Justice Court against the school and Klem for more than $6,000 in unpaid wages. Grimes settled with the school for $636 in January, according to court records. Grimes declined to comment on the case.
Ulibarri said the charter board was unaware of the labor claims and federal investigation with Lifelong because it does not have access to that information. She added that the state Labor Department does not provide the details of the labor claims because that information is considered confidential with the school employees.
“We have tried in the past, but the labor board does not release that information to us,” she said.
The state Labor Department provided copies of the claims filed against Lifelong Learning Academy to the Green Valley News through a public records request.
Enrollment, revenue falling
In August 2011, about a month after Air and Space opened, a fire alarm led to Sharri Cagle quitting her job and pulling her three children out of the school. Dozens of students followed.
The alarm went off the afternoon of Aug. 24; Cagle was at the school to pick up her children and said there were no administrators on campus, only teachers.
She helped evacuate students and the next day wrote a memo to Klem detailing safety issues she felt needed to be addressed, including obstructions in the hallway, rooms that firefighters couldn’t access, and general confusion among students and teachers over procedures when a fire alarm sounds.
“We had some kids extremely upset and a teacher was not that comforting and took it as ‘drama,’” Cagle wrote in the memo. “One child specifically has a genuine fear and was hysterical.”
Later that evening, Cagle was called to the school by police, where she was met by the principal. Police told her that a video indicated she had purposely pulled the alarm.
According to a Sahuarita police report, an equipment inspection by firefighters and a second video clearly showed Cagle had not pulled an alarm.
She packed up her desk that night and never returned.
Cagle believes Klem wanted to get rid of her because she took seriously her job of voicing parents’ concerns with the school.
“I was to hear the parents and be their voice,” she said. “So, when I heard something or parents had issues – good or bad – I let her know, but she didn’t want to know,” Cagle said.
According to a roster from the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, more than 160 students were enrolled at Air and Space and 65 were enrolled at Digital Technology Academy. An Oct. 1, 2011, enrollment count from the Arizona Department of Education lists 70 students at Air and Space and 60 students at Digital. In October 2014, the total for both schools was 82, according to the state education department figures.
Thirty-two students were enrolled at Lifelong Learning Academy in Tucson in 2014, down from 70 in 2011, and 172 in 2010, according to state education enrollment counts.
As enrollment drops, so does revenue. In 2013, the school reported $1.45 million in revenue and $1.74 million in expenses on tax forms.
In emails from Klem contained in labor claims, she expressed concerns over falling enrollment and asked staff to reverse the trend. Air and Space Academy paid for a social media advertising campaign with the Sahuarita Sun, a sister paper of the Green Valley News, this month, which encouraged enrollment for the upcoming year and boasted its credentials as “an ‘A’ charter school.”
Two former employees said it’s important to get information out on the schools so parents can make informed choices.
“The experience my family and I had at A&S should not have to be experienced by any other family,” said Cagle, who moved to Florida last year. “Who would think I am speaking of a school experience and it could be so horrifying? I felt horrible for my children and very responsible for the other families and their children.”
“When I left, I just wanted to be away from it all,” said Webb, the former administrator. “But the right thing to do is to keep families from making a huge mistake and to let future staff know what it is really like.”
View this story online here.