The head of a state agency tasked with implementing sweeping legislative changes to Hawaii’s charter school system is resigning in the midst of pushback from school leaders who say they are being over-regulated.

Tom Hutton was hired three years ago to serve as the first-ever director of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission. Lawmakers created the commission in 2012 as part of a broad overhaul of charter school regulations in the state.

“Part of the art of leadership is being able to recognize when the interests of your organization require a change of leaders,” Hutton wrote in a letter to the commission that was shared with charter schools Wednesday.  “In other professional settings, the turnaround specialist frequently is not best positioned to lead the organization after some of the more painful turnaround tasks have been completed.”

Tom Hutton helped found a well-respected Washington D.C. charter school and served as a lawyer for the National School Boards Association before his appointment as executive director of the charter commission.
Tom Hutton helped found a Washington, D.C., charter school and served as a lawyer for the National School Boards Association before his appointment as executive director of the charter commission. 

Hutton’s task was never going to be easy, said Rep. Roy Takumi, who chairs the House Education Committee, adding that a certain amount of frustration is expected when lawmakers mandate changes in how a longstanding entity operates.

Charter school leaders say the commission has been overburdening schools with reporting requirements, not doing enough to support the schools, and failing to clearly communicate. Many also expressed frustration with the new school contracts, which they felt were too one-size-fits-all and should be negotiated more individually with schools.

Charter School Commission Chair Catherine Payne praised Hutton’s work and said she was sad that to see him leave.

“He has done a very good job of putting together a completely different organization with a different charge than existed before (Act 130)  in a very short time,” Payne said.

Hutton has been “under siege” for some time, Payne said.

Charter school employees curse at Hutton and commission staff on the phone, she said. During a meeting leading up to the closure of Halau Lokahi Charter School, Payne said an employee of the now-shuttered school threw salt on Hutton as a “sign of disgust.”

“I don’t think of educators as behaving in this way,” Payne said. “I’ve never experienced anything this terrible in the kind of treatment people (are) receiving.” 

In his letter to the commission announcing his plans to leave, Hutton highlighted a number of commission achievements including the “establishment of real performance contracts with renewal criteria, so many years after the establishment of chartering in Hawaii,” a more rigorous application process for new charter schools, and garnering a $14.8 million federal grant for pre-kindergarten programs.

“That said, much remains to be done in a charter system and a group charter culture that are a legacy of a unique and problematic evolution, coupled with years of benign neglect,” Hutton said.

Halau Lokahi was the first charter in Hawaii to be shut down by the state.
Halau Lokahi was the first charter school in Hawaii to be shut down by the state. Halau Lokahi

The Board of Education, meanwhile, has been listening carefully to complaints from charter school leaders.

The BOE, which oversees the Charter School Commission, formed an investigative committee in January to look at whether a special review of the commission’s performance is warranted.

The decision followed a charter school listening tour that highlighted the increasingly contentious relationship between charter school leaders and the commission.

The tour raised a significant number of concerns, BOE Member Jim Williams said during a board meeting last month. Several charter school leaders called for Hutton’s ouster during the listening tour.

“It is time for him to leave,” Connections Public Charter School Principal John Thatcher said Wednesday. “I think he’d done more damage than good to the charter school (movement) in Hawaii.”

The Charter School Commission was not invited to participate in the tour and was not asked to respond to the complaints before the BOE published its report on the events.

The BOE is also in the midst of creating rules that would allow additional agencies to apply to become charter school authorizers. The Charter School Commission is currently the only agency in Hawaii that can approve new charter schools.

Hawaii  County and the University of Hawaii West Oahu have both expressed interest in becoming charter school authorizers.

Hutton said he would be discussing a timeline for his departure with the commission.

“When I accepted this position three years ago, I said that the urgency of the long overdue work before us required us to move quickly and that I would not set our pace based on concern for my own longevity but based on the interests of children, the public, and Hawaii’s charter movement,” Hutton wrote. “This meant that it was entirely possible that I would outrun my capital at some point, and I was OK with that.”

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