Hawaii’s charter school system received a scathing report from the state auditor’s office Thursday.

The Charter School Review Panel, which is the agency charged with overseeing charter schools, “has misinterpreted state law and minimized its role in the system’s accountability structure,” the report states in its summary. It adds that the panel has delegated too much of the monitoring and accountability to the boards of individual schools.

The auditor’s two overarching findings were:

  1. The Charter School Review Panel fails to hold charter schools accountable for student performance.
  2. Charter school operations fail to comply with state law and principles of public accountability.

Most of the information in the report was not news to the officials who oversee the 32-school charter school system, or to members of the public following the numerous nepotism, ethics and other scandals at charter schools around the state.

Officials have already been hard at work to address those, as well as other authority and accountability problems outlined in the report. Earlier this month, a legislative task force — on which some of those officials served — recommended a complete overhaul of the system.

“We saw a lot of these problems, which is why all the things going on have been going on,” said Roger McKeague, executive director of the Charter School Administrative Office, which provides support for the network of schools. “That’s why we had the task force. It was all in recognition of the fact that there was issues, and that things needed to be tightened up to make it work better.”

McKeague, panel members and other policymakers hope the overhaul will solve the fact that some charter schools have been omitting or misrepresenting critical data, overpaying staff and not abiding by state ethics law — all problems found during the audit.

“The lack of oversight by the review panel, the Charter School Administrative Office, which is responsible for management of the charter school system, and the local school boards has resulted in school spending and employment practices that are unethical and illegal,” the report states.

While the overseers of the system agree with the majority of the findings, they take issue with others, and say the report contains some factual errors. The audit, for example, states that schools misrepresented enrollment numbers, on which school funding is based, thereby possibly defrauding the state of hundreds of thousands of dollars. McKeague says the administrative office never based school funding distributions on those misreported numbers, but an official enrollment count that is confirmed by the administrative office.

The panel disputes the claim that it has neglected its responsibility to hold schools accountable, saying it has provided oversight of charter schools “to the extent allowable by law.”

McKeague said that despite the disparate interpretations of some of the information in the report, it highlights the need for clearer laws and lines of authority.

The state House and Senate education committees will host an informational briefing on the audit at the Capitol 2 p.m. next Monday, Dec. 19.

Read the full Performance Audit of the Hawaii Public Charter School System.

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