The management of a charter school on the Big Island faced criticism from the state teachers union and state education officials during a State Public Charter School Commission meeting Thursday.

Ka’u Learning Academy, a year-old charter school serving third- through sixth-graders, missed deadlines for payroll submissions and did not withhold and pay dues to the teachers’ union for union members, according to a memo from the commission.

However, Joe Iacuzzo, managing director of the school, said school administrators have not missed any payroll dates based on the schedule the school had set internally. Instead, the problem was with the schedule the commission had set for the school.

Ka'u Learning Academy logo
Ka’u Learning Academy is a year-old charter school on the Big Island. 

“It is an absolute mischaracterization to say that we missed a payment or did not pay our employees on time,” Iacuzzo  said. “That has never happened.”

The administrators for the school, which opened in July 2015, processed the payroll late at least three times last year despite receiving a payroll schedule and reminders, according to the commission. If the school did miss a payroll deadline, it could have to surrender its charter, said Leila Shar, financial performance manager for the commission.

Because of the payroll delay, the payments for employee health care coverage were not made, the commission said, causing the coverage to be canceled for two employees. 

Earlier this year, a school employee filed a complaint with the commission saying that after a medical appointment he discovered his health insurance coverage had been canceled – even though money had been taken out from his paycheck for it – because of missing information from the school in previous pay periods. The commission then required the school to submit a plan to fix the issue by May 27, but the commission has not yet received a plan, Shar said. 

The school is now up to date on payments for employee health insurance, Shar said after the meeting.

Andrea Eshelman, executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, also criticized the school’s administration for not paying union dues in written testimony to the commission. The association has not received any dues from Ka’u Learning Academy, but $60 for dues was taken out of teachers’ paychecks in May and June, Eshelman said in the testimony.

“If this school is to be successful, these issues need to be cleared up and addressed immediately,” she wrote. “It is not fair nor legal for the school to be so lax.”

Iacuzzo said the lapse in payment of union dues was unfortunate and had just “slipped through the cracks.”

“We focused our resources onto teachers,” he said. “We didn’t put a lot into administration, as you can imagine with a first-year school because we didn’t realize how much bureaucracy there is.”

The commission had also reported that the school’s administrators submitted financial reports to the commission late or not at all. After the last quarterly financial report, Mark Fournier, chair for the school’s governing board, issued a complaint to the commission that the template for the financial report was full of errors and that an email from the commission about the report had an “aggressive nature.”

“(The email) implies that KLA has been negligent and perhaps even incompetent in its duties,” Fournier wrote in a memo to the commission. “Admittedly, this is the school’s first year and there has been an enormously steep learning curve. However, I can say with absolute certainty that this staff is not only passionately dedicated to providing these children with a superior education, but they are also highly competent.”

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