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For the families who reside in the Kau District on Big Island, school options are few and far between.
The rural area, between Puna and Kona on the southern end of the island, contains two traditional Hawaii Department of Education schools — an elementary school and another serving grades K-12 — while the closest charter school, The Volcano School of Arts & Sciences, serving K-8 under a Hawaiian-focused curriculum, is 40 miles to the northeast.
Years ago, the smattering of schools wasn’t as big an issue. But population growth in the Kau region due to the relatively lower-cost homes in fast-growing subdivisions like Ocean View Estates has created a greater need for more educational services in recent years.
So when Ka’u Learning Academy, a new public charter school for elementary grade students, was authorized to open in 2015, many families with school-aged children were relieved.
“There were people who were very pleased to have an alternative,” said Linda Morgan, a part-time school librarian at Naalehu Elementary in Kau. “Some people have gone to great lengths to get their kid in an alternative they felt would be better than a DOE school.”
But that newest option, which served grades 3-7, didn’t last very long.
Three years after opening, the school’s charter was revoked July 9 by the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission because of multiple violations that included irregular accounting, inflated enrollment and alleged test fraud.
KLA’s closure, some say, is a big hit to the community since it means one less school in a fast-growing but isolated region where transportation is very limited. Kau is so sparsely populated with schools, one Big Island charter school leader calls it “the biggest black hole of education in all of the state of Hawaii.”
“The education opportunities in that area are nil to none,” said Steve Hirakami, head of Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, a charter school located in Pahoa, 60 miles northeast of Kau.
Roughly 92 students were projected to enroll at KLA in the 2018-19 school year, with a total staff of 12, including four full-time teachers. The students are now expected to return to the DOE schools in the area — Naalehu Elementary or Pahala Elementary — to charters outside the region, or be home schooled, said the school’s executive director Josh DeWeerd.
“It’s been a little painful for the community,” Naalehu Elementary’s principal, Darlene Javar, said of the recent developments. “If (families) choose to come back to Naalehu, we welcome them. If they wish to go somewhere else, we wish them well.”
The rocky journey of KLA in some ways is a case study of the challenges of operating a charter school in a remote rural region where teacher staffing is hard to come by — and of the institutional barriers facing such schools due to limited funding and a lack of centralized support.
Charter schools in Hawaii are tuition-free alternatives to traditional public schools. Their primary funding is a $7,323 per-student allocation, with no additional funds for items like facilities, transportation and meals.
Charter schools are largely autonomous from control of the Hawaii Department of Education. They are run by independent governing boards and held accountable to individual contracts that are authorized by the Charter School Commission.
The commission, made up of nine volunteer members appointed by the state Board of Education, has the authority to revoke a school’s charter at any time under four criteria: if the school committed material violations of the contract, failed to make sufficient progress toward expectations detailed in the contract, failed to meet accepted standards of fiscal management or violated the law.
“KLA in this case qualified under all four of those examples and then some,” said John Kim, commission chairman.
In the end, the commission identified 22 total violations by KLA. The Hawaii Attorney General’s Office and Hawaii State Ethics Commission have also reportedly opened their own investigations, although neither agency offered comment.
Despite KLA’s unique predicament, charter school advocates say it is reflective of how trying the first several years of any new school can be. A charter school typically must go it alone without a centralized office to provide explicit guidance in helping figure out matters relating to personnel, hiring or financial reporting requirements.
“Any charter school will experience some of its most significant challenges within the first three years of opening its doors because resources to support schools and the level of understanding that they need to operate are scarce,” said Jeannine Souki, executive director of the Hawaii Public Charter School Network, a nonprofit that provides support and guidance to charter schools.
KLA was one of 37 charter schools in the state, with two more targeted to open in 2019 or 2020. And it’s only the second in Hawaii to have its charter revoked — the other one was Halau Lokahi Public Charter School in Kalihi that closed in 2015 due to misuse of finances.
Red flags at KLA were apparent early on.
The original governing board was comprised of more than the statutorily allowed one-third share of vendors, relatives or employees of the school, and meetings were held only sporadically during the first year without detailed minutes posted to the school website.
The commission sent an initial notice of revocation to KLA in November 2017 based on a financial audit. Once additional concerns came to light, it reissued a notice in April this year listing more violations.
By the time the commission voted unanimously in early July to revoke the school’s charter — with five of nine members present for the vote — concerns about KLA had ballooned.
Those included the use of school debit cards for personal expenses, enrollment of at least 10 students older than approved grade levels and, most recently, allegedly fraudulent testing practices. The testing improprieties caused the DOE to open its own review and invalidate the school’s scores for 2017.
“The more we looked, the more problems we found,” Kim said. “It was kind of a sequential build-up for close to a year. The final straw was when we investigated allegations of test fraud.”
“In the long run, it’s better if we got these kids into schools that are doing things the right way,” he added. “We had to make a decision based on … what has to be done in terms of what’s best for the system.”
Hawaii charter schools were intended to offer a more decentralized learning environment and serve as laboratories for school innovation. Many charters are located on the Big Island and provide Hawaiian-focused curriculums.
In the 2016-17 school year, there were 10,630 students statewide enrolled in Hawaii charters, or roughly 6 percent of the 179,000 students who attended DOE schools.
In its own charter application, KLA pledged a rigorous and innovative learning environment that “holds high social and academic expectations for the children of Ka’u.” It stressed the need for a school to address the low math and reading proficiency rates in Kau, where 85 percent of kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
But KLA struggled behind the scenes, according to the commission’s findings.
Kathyrn Tydlacka, KLA founder and its former principal, has turned what used to be the school’s website into a platform for vigorously defending her leadership and oversight. She denies the allegations against KLA, saying they are “vague, unsubstantiated and some are outright lies.”
A former Naaleehu Elementary School teacher, Tydlacka resigned from the governing board earlier this year and was no longer involved with the school in its final months.
She defended the alleged financial violations, saying that a new and inexperienced school bookkeeper had accidentally paid another employee’s cable bill, “because it was somehow mixed up with the school’s bills,” but that it was reimbursed.
As for the enrollment discrepancy, she told Civil Beat, “with parent consent, we had a couple of students we held back in 7th grade for various reasons.”
She also said it was difficult to find licensed teachers, pointing to the school’s remote geography. But she said the area is “teeming with intelligent people with good work ethic who we hired and trained.”
Tydlacka also discussed the difficulties of running a charter school without a support office.
“Our school had first and second year growing and learning pains and a learning curve,” she said. “The charter school commission never even gave us a manual with the appropriate support.”
The commission is aware of that missing element: it’s considering creating a division of support within the agency, based on a vote taken at a June 28 commission meeting.
The new leaders of KLA told the commission during a July hearing that they had imposed stronger procedures at the school and hired a new business manager. But those actions weren’t enough.
Doug Flaherty, the KLA board chairman, told Civil Beat that the school won’t appeal the commission’s decision to revoke their charter.
He cited the length of time an appeal would take — too late for the school to reopen its doors in time for any part of the 2018-19 school year. But more than that, he said, he doesn’t want to be associated with the KLA name.
“To be honest (if we won the appeal), we would still be Ka’u Learning Academy, and I don’t think we want that name associated with Kau,” he said. “I think the name is tainted.”
The school is reaching out to families to notify them of the closure and the commission has also sent letters home to families.
“We felt bad having to make the decision,” said Mitch D’Olier, a charter school commissioner. “We didn’t like what was happening to the community and we all struggled with it.
But he added, “As a practical matter, if you don’t draw a line somewhere, that means we’re going to tolerate this kind of behavior in our schools in the future and that sets a horrible message.”
James Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at UH Manoa, says some of KLA’s troubles reflect the broader difficulty many charters have finding their footing in Hawaii.
“It sounds like the pushback from the school is that they were working and they were correcting,” he said. “But were they getting the advice and support of how not to get into trouble in the first place? We don’t know.”
Listen to Civil Beat’s “On Campus” podcast to follow the first year of an Oahu charter school.
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