Nepotism, ethics violations, conflicts of interest, abuse, waste and fraud. All are accusations that have been brought against individual charter schools in Hawaii in the last year.

Then there was one charter school principal’s abrupt and unexplained recent departure mid-school year, and one wildly unpopular decision to convert a traditional public school into a charter.

These, combined with a leadership crisis at the state level, have all swirled into one perfect storm over charter schools in Hawaii. Out of that tempest has emerged a widely supported omnibus bill in the Legislature that proposes throwing out the state’s existing charter school laws and replacing them with an entirely new set, based on the Model Public Charter School Law promoted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But several charter school leaders in Hawaii worry that the recent outbreak of scandals at a few schools around the state reflects unfairly on the charter school movement.

“It erodes the public’s support of public charter schools,” said Ruth Tschumy, a former member and chair of the Hawaii Charter School Review Panel. “It does a disservice to the other charter schools in Hawaii that are doing an excellent job. Most of them use funds wisely and effectively and are playing by the rules.”

Hawaii’s 32 public charter schools, which have about 8,000 students enrolled, receive about $60 million per year from the state but operate independently under charters with the state.

West Hawaii Explorations Academy co-director Curtis Muraoka said it is unfair to paint all charter schools — even all charter schools in Hawaii — with the same broad brush.

“As someone who has worked in the DOE for 10 years, and the same ‘good’ charter school for 12, the recent storm of criticism has me worried that the sum of the whole will continue to be punished for sins of a few parts,” he wrote in an email to Civil Beat.

He pointed out in a follow-up phone conversation that by their very definition, each of the state’s 32 charter schools is unique and has its own individual strengths and challenges.

The Gathering Storm

The recent spate of controversies began in January 2011 when the Charter School Review Panel began investigating charges of nepotism at Honolulu-based Myron B. Thompson Academy. Legislators threatened then that charter school funding could be impacted by the apparent lack of accountability for the public funds that charter schools receive.

A month later came the forced ouster of Charter School Administrative Office Director Maunalei Love — the sixth director in seven years — over differences of opinion about her job responsibilities.

The controversy escalated in October with news of a host of ethics charges against Hilo-based Connections New Century Public Charter School.

That same month, a court overruled one of the Charter School Review Panel’s first attempts at enforcing accountability. The court said the panel did not have the administrative authority from the Board of Education to revoke a charter from Waters of Life Public Charter School, which had a history of poor financial management.

In December, a legislative task force assigned to examine the plethora of charter school governance problems recommended a complete overhaul of the state’s charter school law.

Just days later, a state audit came out blasting the charter system for misinterpreting state law and failing to hold schools accountable. The audit accused individual schools of messy bookkeeping inflating enrollment numbers to get more money from the state.

In January, the Board of Education reversed the Charter School Review Panel’s decision to side with the community and delay converting Laupahoehoe High and Elementary School into a charter school.

That in turn led to the abrupt resignation of three panel members who said the board’s decision showed a disregard for the panel’s hard work and authority.

In February, Waimea Middle School Principal John Colson left abruptly and with no explanation from either him or the local school board that oversees the charter.

Earlier this week, news broke that fired Hawaii Technology Academy principal Jeff Piontek and vice principal Ana Matsumoto were under investigation for misuse of about $100,000 in state school funds.

Tschumy speculated that all of these problems seem to be coming to light at once precisely because of recent efforts to hold charters more accountable.

Most of the state’s charter schools were chartered by the Board of Education around 10, 11 and 12 years ago, before there were many regulations for them. As a result, some organizations received charters before they were probably well prepared.

The Charter School Review Panel, which is supposed to hold charters accountable, was not instituted until 2007. About that same time, the state began requiring the schools to get annual independent financial audits.

“I think those schools got used to operating in isolation, and all of them operated for seven, eight or nine years prior to a review panel coming into existence,” Tschumy said. “So some of them were accustomed to operating in isolation, and possibly for a few of them, the panel’s oversight seems intrusive.”

An ‘Unusual Interpretation’ of Responsibilities

A lack of clarity about which boards, panels and offices are responsible for helping avert or handle these crises has only exacerbated them.

This is evidenced by the forced resignation of the former Charter School Administrative Office director, the court’s overturn of the review panel’s decision to revoke a charter and the Board of Education’s reversal of the panel’s decision to delay granting one.

Tschumy was one of the three panel members who resigned in January. She said at the time the Board of Education’s decision disregarded hours of the panel’s work and undermined its authority.

This week, she called the board’s appointment of one of the replacement members an “unusual interpretation of its responsibilities.”

The appointment in question: Jerelyn Watanabe, a teacher at Myron B. Thompson — the site of the first in this series of charter school scandals.

“I’m very disappointed in the Board of Education’s approval of a teacher from Myron B. Thompson Academy, because that charter school is under the shadow of possible misconduct,” she told Civil Beat. “The board made this decision even though it knows the state auditor is investigating possible unethical hiring. That erodes public confidence in the board.

“I think that decision was very ill advised, and I think it weakens the fundamental bargain that charter schools make with the state of Hawaii, which is that in exchange for greater autonomy and use of state funds, they promise to be accountable. It seems the board may not intend to hold charter schools accountable, and sadly I think Hawaii’s children will be the losers, given the board’s unusual interpretation of its responsibilities.”

It’s virtually impossible to avoid potential conflicts of interest on the Charter School Review Panel, said Board of Education member Jim Williams at the meeting during which Watanabe was appointed, because of the panel’s structure.

“Under the law and the way the panel is currently structured, all members have a potential conflict in one way or another, because you have specific slots for people from charter school community,” he said.

Tschumy says that the public perception of the appointments matters, especially during such a tumultuous time for the charter movement.

‘An Easy Target’

Not all news in the charter school system is bad, though, which is why Tschumy and charter school leaders like Muraoka at West Hawaii Explorations Academy get frustrated with the amount of attention these negative events receive.

“That’s one of the things I have a problem reading in the paper,” said Muraoka. “The tone is, ‘There go those charter schools again.'”

He added that when charter schools are accused of misconduct, it’s virtually impossible to shake the negative reputation even after cleaning up their acts.

“It’s really disheartening, because we’re all trying to just be focused on kids, and there’s a whole slew of things that are problematic and don’t apply to everybody.”

Charters make an easy target, Muraoka said, because they typically don’t have the resources to fight unfavorable public perceptions. He also said that blunders are a natural byproduct of experimentation, which is the mission of charter schools in the first place.

“If you experiment, you’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “Charters, even before they came to Hawaii, started out as this experiment of how to make schools more community-oriented, more kid-focused and more market-driven.”

Tschumy has stated publicly on numerous occasions that she hopes the bad behavior of a few doesn’t bring down the whole experiment, because there are charters doing good work. She also hopes the omnibus bill in the Legislature this year will help clarify what’s expected and required of charter schools, and hold them accountable for delivering and doing right by the taxpayers, parents and students.

Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda, who crafted the Senate version of the bill, says that is her goal.

For example, the Charter School Review Panel, which is currently tasked with authorizing charter schools and holding them accountable, would be given a stronger role with the authority to revoke charters so courts can’t overturn such decisions like it did in the Waters of Life case.

Charter schools would also be required to enter into performance contracts with the review panel, the name of which would be changed to Public Charter School Commission. If a school does not meet the commitments in its contract, its charter would be revoked.

To improve financial accountability and prevent situations like the potential fraudulent use of funds at Hawaii Technology Academy, the bill proposes requiring certain skill sets to be represented on the governing boards for charters, such as at least one member with accounting skills.

“The hope is that all of those massive game-changers will help to ease some of these tensions, address some of the issues that people are seeing in these schools, and create better supports for the schools and governing boards themselves,” Tokuda said. “I’m hoping that the work we did will help address a lot of the major issues and concerns that people have about charters.”

While Tschumy supports the bill, she said, the devil will be in the details of things like how the performance contracts for charter schools are written.

“The whole bargain for charter schools is that in exchange for greater autonomy, they would be accountable,” Tschumy said. “Some of them have trouble living up to the bargain of accountability in exchange for autonomy, and I think your reports and other reports have highlighted this. If individual schools are not held accountable for their actions, then the credibility of the entire movement will be called into question and the reputations of all will be tarnished.”

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