The Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Board of Trustees voted Thursday to give Hawaiian-focused charter schools $3 million directly,  as opposed to using a grant administrator.

The winning bidder of the initial plan move called the decision “completely stunning.”

“The vote taken by the trustees at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is a breach of their fiduciary duty,” said Michelle Kauhane, president of the Council of Native Hawaiian Advancement, the nonprofit that was originally selected to disburse the funds this school year.

“I am utterly disappointed in the level of leadership demonstrated by my OHA trustees,” she said.

The 8-0 vote, with Trustee Robert Lindsey recusing himself, ratified a vote last week by OHA’s Resource Management Committee to eliminate use of a third party to distribute the funds to 17 Hawaiian-focused charter schools around the state.

The vote by the Board of Trustees reverses a controversial decision by OHA — a quasi-state agency that advocates on behalf of native Hawaiians and doles out money — to award the grant administration contract to CNHA this school year following a competitive application process.

The distribution of OHA funds to the Hawaiian charter schools had long been handled by a community nonprofit, Kanu O Ka Aina Leaning Ohana. But the management of the funds was set to change over to CNHA, which won the competitive bid process after scoring higher in its application.

The $3 million will now go directly from OHA to the charter schools during a two-year period.

People move out of meeting area. OHA meeting Exec Session. 4 jan 2017
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs voted 8-0 (with one member recusing) to directly give native Hawaiian charter schools money instead of using a third party to administer the funds. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Since 2006, OHA has provided $18.6 million to the Hawaiian-focused charter schools, which serve about 4,200 students, and focus on Hawaiian language immersion and culture. The money supplements other funding these public schools receive from the Hawaii Department of Education and institutions like Kamehameha Schools.

KALO had been administering the OHA funds for the last eight years, keeping a percentage of the funds for itself as an administrative fee. Removing a third party means the schools will see some boost in the amount they receive, which is determined by a formula tied to student enrollment.

Thursday’s OHA board vote capped a concerted campaign waged by some members of the Hawaiian Focused Charter Schools Alliance protesting OHA executive branch’s decision to award the competitive grant to CNHA.

These members testified before OHA members at public meetings, arguing CNHA was too far removed from the needs and issues of the Hawaiian charter schools as a political, rather than educational, entity.

CNHA supports the idea of federal recognition while the alliance is more closely aligned with promoting Hawaiian sovereignty.

Kauhane did not specify what further action CNHA might take in light of Thursday’s development.

OHA had not officially entered into a contract with the nonprofit to administer this year’s $1.5 million in funding, but the charter schools had been notified over the summer that a new grant manager had been chosen.

“Their decision (to give money to schools directly) was made with complete disregard of OHA’s own approved procurement process,” Kauhane said in a statement to Civil Beat. “The trustees chose to embrace the accusations of community activism over facts and an objective evaluation implemented by the administration. Completely stunning.”

Olani Lilly, principal of Ka ‘Umeke Ka’eo, a native Hawaiian immersion charter school in Hilo on the Big Island, said she didn’t object to awarding the contract to CNHA.

“I thought that was a step in the right direction as far as OHA wanting to be accountable, more transparent,” she said.

The larger issue, said Lilly, is finding a source of facilities funding for the charters, which must pay for their own facilities.

Ka ‘Umeke Ka’eo’s $2.9 million budget this year consists of $1.5 million in state Department of Education funding, as well as $320,000 from Kamehameha Schools and $91,000 from OHA.

The charter school, which serves grades pre-K through 9, is spending $293,000 to rent three separate locations for its 235 students.

“It would be good for OHA to come up with a strategy to support Hawaiian-focused charter schools other than with just money,” such as leveraging funds to help with facilities funding, Lilly said.

About the Author