Not much escapes the scrutiny of State Auditor Marion Higa and her staff.

Among the many items that turn up in her office’s audit of charter schools is the the fact that a retired vice principal for Myron B. Thompson Academy was able to sign off on a $17,500 purchase order — even though she no longer worked at the school.

“Now, that is just a no-no in any kind of management operation,” Higa told members of the state House and Senate education committees.

Committee members, especially Sen. Jill Tokuda and Rep. Della Au Belatti, already knew that, however. The point of their joint informational briefing at the Capitol on Monday was to hear more about Higa’s audit, which was released Friday, and see how it dovetails with their own work on revamping charter schools.

Higa’s main findings — that the Charter School Review Panel fails to hold schools accountable for student performance, and that school operations fail to comply with state law and regulations — only underscore a legislative task force’s recent recommendations that the system needs an overhaul.

As Tokuda told Higa, the “big, glaring concerns” the audit brought up “are parallel” to the task force’s own findings.

What the Legislature has to do, said Tokuda is modify state statutes in a way that retains charter school autonomy while requiring greater accountability.

Schools Not at Briefing

Unlike hearings on bills and resolutions, informational briefings do not allow testimony other than from those who legislators invite. Had teachers, administrators and parents of the charter schools that were audited — 10 out 31 total — been asked to speak, there might have been more fireworks.

The only invited guests at Monday’s briefing, however, were Higa and representatives from the Charter School Review Panel and Charter School Administrative Office.

Representatives of both of those organizations told lawmakers they largely accepted Higa’s findings and her report’s recommendations.

Carl Takamura, the review panel’s chair, said, “I agree, we need to do a better job. But it’s not for lack of trying.”

What the review panel lacks, he said, is more leverage in tying a school’s performance evaluations to charter reauthorization.

Ruth Tschumy, a past review panel chair, said, “My feeling is we have some exemplary schools, but a number of schools were chartered before this panel came into existence and do not feel that the panel applies to them.”

Roger McKeague, executive director of the Charter School Administrative Office, noted that some charter schools have already responded to the audit’s findings — “to some of these bombs that have been dropped,” as he put it.

Some schools, such as Myron B. Thompson, are under FBI investigation, while others are being looked at by the state Department of Taxation.

“There are a number of eyes looking,” said Tokuda.

The shared consensus among most who attended and participated in the info briefing is that — in spite of all the “bombs” — charter schools, a program that began in 1995 and today serves nearly 8,000 kids, is a valued system.

“What is crystal clear is we have some amazing things going on,” said Tokuda.

About the Author