Charter School Says Enemies Cost It Plenty

     BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — A nonprofit founded by Cesar Chavez claims in court that it lost more than $1 million in charter school funding after its old partner accused it of violating education codes.
     The Farmworker Institute of Education & Leadership Development (FIELD) and the school, EPIC de Cesar Chavez, claim John Muir Charter Schools created a “perfect storm’ that placed EPIC in peril of losing its charter and cause[d] plaintiffs substantial financial harm and injury to their reputations.”
     Chavez founded FIELD in 1978 to provide farmworkers with education and leadership training, according to the 52-page complaint in Kern County Court.
     FIELD director David Villarino, a plaintiff, says in the May 11 lawsuit that he noticed that many adult farmworkers lacked a high school education, which made them less likely to become U.S. citizens, vote or hold steady jobs.
     Since opening a charter school is a lengthy and difficult process, FIELD partnered with John Muir Charter Schools in 2010 to offer high school courses to eligible FIELD students. Villarino says the agreement was mutually beneficial because Muir receives funding through Proposition 58, which is based on daily average school attendance.
     Four years later, Villarino says, he received authorization from the California Department of Education and the Nevada County Board of Education, which oversees Muir’s schools, and to open EPIC, a charter high school that offers English classes and basic secondary adult education.
     Neither state agency is a party to the complaint.
     “EPIC is truly ‘one-of-a-kind,’ not only because EPIC can operate anywhere in California, but because it is one of a handful of public charter schools that serves adults (over the age of 25),” the complaint states. (Parentheses in complaint.)
     EPIC teaches nearly 700 students in its 15 schools in four rural regions.
     Villarino says things went well until June 2015, when he announced at the 2014-2015 graduation that Rabobank had made a donation that would allow EPIC to transfer staff and students from the Muir campus to EPIC.
     Richard Guess, John Muir’s CEO, was upset by the announcement and “initiated a personal crusade to destroy and ruin Villarino’s reputation and destroy and ruin FIELD/EPIC altogether,” the complaint states.
     Though the parties confidentially settled their dispute in December, Guess emailed Holly Hermansen, the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools, accusing Villarino of stealing state money and property, and the two then concocted a plan to get rid of Villarino and EPIC, according to the complaint.
     Hermansen is not a party to the complaint. Guess is a defendant.
     Defendant Tiffany Tosti, EPIC’s director of student services, cooperated with Guess by sending him sensitive information in a “vindictive campaign” against Villarino after he fired her boyfriend for performance issues, the complaint states.
     Villarino claims Tosti deliberately failed to buy textbooks and other educational supplies and did not ensure that all teachers were properly credentialed, to make EPIC appear out of compliance with state regulations.
     She gave Guess this information, who used it to conspire with defendant Catherine Peacock at the state Department of Education to defame EPIC and revoke its charter so Muir could assume control, the complaint states.
     Villarino claims Peacock launched a bogus review of EPIC, and after visiting only one of its 15 schools, issued a citation that blocked more than $150,000 in federal funds. EPIC also missed out on $1 million in state funding after the defendants persuaded the California Conservation Corps to deny certification to EPIC’s Kern Service and Conservation Corps program, the complaint states.
     Villarino says he has suffered shame, mortification, and damage to his and EPIC’s professional reputations due to the defendants’ libelous statements about them.
     The defendants did not immediately return emailed requests for comment Thursday afternoon.
     The plaintiffs seek punitive damages for inducing breach of contract, intentional interference with contractual relations, defamation, intentional and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage, civil conspiracy, and negligence.
     They are represented by Joseph Casas of San Diego, who did not return an emailed request for comment Thursday.

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