The Hawaii Board of Education is urging the Legislature to help public charter schools pay for their facilities and offer a centralized support structure so the schools can better leverage financial resources.

The recommendations come on the heels of an annual report issued last month by the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission that said the “academic performance of charter schools continues to be mixed.”

The commission authorizes and reviews charter schools and falls under the umbrella of the state Department of Education. Its annual report for the 2016-17 school year is the sixth overall and assesses 34 charter schools in operation last year — two new ones have opened up since.

SEEQS charter school tent. 4 may 2016.
Before the School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability, a public charter school, relocated to a new campus this year, its classes were held in makeshift classrooms. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Charters comprised the highest-performing schools in math, science and English language proficiency as well as the lowest-performing ones among the 292 public schools statewide, according to Strive HI performance results recently released by the DOE.

Charter schools in Hawaii are independently governed and run autonomously from the DOE. They serve about 11,000 students among the 179,255 enrolled in public schools this year.

Nearly half of the public charters have a Hawaiian culture focus. Among those, five are Hawaiian language immersion schools.

As the 2018 legislative session nears, the charter school commission and BOE plan to collaboratively push for more funding, commission Chairwoman Catherine Payne told Civil Beat.

“We’re not going to get funding for every school to pay for facilities this first round,” Payne said, adding, “there are a lot more people recognizing (facilities funding) is an issue and sympathetic to the needs of the schools. There is a groundswell of more support and better relationships.”

“The schools have to be as good or better than the regular public schools, otherwise there’s no point in having them be a charter.” — Catherine Payne, Charter School Commission

Per-pupil allocation this school year for charters was $7,323, up from $7,089 the year before. That does not include facilities funding, meaning charters are required to rent their own spaces and come up with creative solutions to hold classes during the day.

The charters, which receive state and federal dollars, are evaluated by the commission based on a three-pronged framework based on academics, finances and organizational performance.

The charter schools “were generally in fair financial position as of June 30, 2017,” the commission’s report concluded. But it noted they “may not remain on firm financial footing for the long term if current levels of available funding are not maintained in coming years.”

At least one charter school — Ka’u Learning Academy, a Hawaii Island school that serves 94 students in grades 3 through 7 — was recently put on notice for possible revocation of its charter based on an independent auditor’s report on its finances.

Some of the red flags raised from the audit include lack of internal controls, lack of documentation for charges made to the school debit account and the fact that employee bonuses were not run through payroll, according to the commission’s findings last month.

Ka’u Learning Academy has 30 days to appeal or respond to the commission’s notice.

The commission’s annual report was released about 10 months after the BOE finalized a report from a special committee tasked to review the agency’s performance based on complaints of a lack of strategic vision, poor communication and unclear standards.

In its legislative report this year, the BOE said the commission was “clearly making communication a priority” and “continues to make overall progress toward developing and implementing a strong accountability system.”

During a school board meeting Tuesday evening held at Kaimuki Middle School, BOE members said they were encouraged by the direction the commission was heading under its executive director, Sione Thompson, who expressed the need for more back office support for the schools.

The commission is working on a long-range strategic plan to be released sometime next May, Payne said.

“Charter schools are still very much understood in the community as being places that take away resources from public schools,” she said. “I think the continuing need is to help people understand that we’re part of the public school system and just options for parents and children, and (that) each (school) should be a unique expression of the needs for that particular community.”

“The bottom line is, the schools have to be as good or better than the regular public schools, otherwise there’s no point in having them be a charter,” Payne said.

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