The Hawaii State Pubic Charter School Commission on Thursday unanimously voted to reinstate $75,000 in per pupil funding to Waimea Middle School, quickly patching a temporary budget concern that had steep implications for other charter schools.

It’s likely the money will come directly from the Legislature, as the commissioners have been speaking to lawmakers about the inability of small charter school budgets to absorb the cost of such liability claims.

According to Yvonne Lau, the commission’s deputy director, lawmakers assured her “they will go ahead and fund those settlements,” she said at the meeting. “They understand charter schools are funded separately, that they’re not traditional state agencies.”

Board of Education Charter School Board Chair John Kim.
Charter School Commission Chairman John Kim says it’s been a good learning experience. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Big Island charter school found itself in the middle of a much broader dialogue about the ability of state charter schools to pay their own liability settlements following a trip and fall case on school grounds that resulted in a $75,000 settlement late last year.

Unlike previous years, where the state funded claims from the general fund, the charter school was ordered to pay the amount out of its own fiscal budget as part of a policy shift. Unlike traditional Department of Education schools, charter schools function as their own independent state agencies and their legal claims are not covered by the DOE budget.

In Waimea’s case, the state Attorney General’s Office paid the $75,000 to the plaintiff, but requested reimbursement from the commission, which is the authorizer of the state’s 39 public charter schools and distributor of funds.

That’s how the commission ended up withholding that particular amount from Waimea Middle, setting off a flurry of worry amid the charter school community on whether this precedent could endanger other charter schools’ financial futures in the event something similar happened.

Waimea school leaders also vowed to pursue any avenue available to remedy their position.

Discussion Thursday over the issue was relatively brief.

One consensus that was reached was that all charter schools would have to work closely with the AG’s office in future tort cases so the Legislature could be informed about settlements on the horizon and opt to fund those directly.

“At least we have a process where we can monitor that and at least have a verbal assurance it was never an intent to put charter schools at risk,” Chairman John Kim said at the meeting. “We need to find out about these cases before it becomes settled. It’s been a good learning experience.”

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