Charter schools panel struggles to find its way

by Bret Yager
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

The Charter School Review Panel has approved a $72 million operating budget request for the 2008-09 school year, but the beleaguered panel appears to be months away from approving the three new schools allowed for this year.

"Our priority is to set in place a quality procedure for chartering so we don't have to do this over," said panelist Ku Kahakalau, director of Kanu 'o ka 'Aina charter school in Waimea. "It's better to go for quality than speed, since the money is not available anyway. I'm hoping we can shoot for January, or March at the latest."

Any new schools that begin operations this year would have to share funds with the state's 27 existing charter schools, since extra money for the new schools was cut from the 2007-08 budget.

Seven schools have applied for charter status. Since charters are independent, they could theoretically begin operations as soon as they are approved.

But the panel is unlikely to approve a charter school start in the middle of the year, because that would disrupt students, panel chairperson Nina Buchanan said. New schools will probably start in July 2008, she said.

The Charter School Review Panel was expanded and given new powers by the Legislature this spring to approve charters and hire the executive director of the Charter School Administrative Office, responsibilities which previously fell to the Board of Education.

The review panel was created by the Legislature with members appointed by the BOE, and appeals of panel decisions go to the BOE, but the committee carries out its decision-making independently, said Department of Education spokesman Greg Knudsen.

The unpaid volunteer panel has struggled in the face of delays, a sudden increase in workload and a shortage of members.

The law governing charter schools is "sloppy" and contradictory and needs reworking, Buchanan said. The appeals process is also unclear, Buchanan said. She's not sure if the Board of Education - which handles appeals on denied charter applications - has the power to award a charter on appeal or if the application simply goes back to the review panel.

"One minute we're appointed by the BOE, given the task of evaluating applications, the next we're under a new law, in charge of everything else, with no staff and no help," Buchanan said.

Recent efforts by the panel have focused on defining its own procedures and responsibilities and bringing four new panelists up to speed. The panel is supposed to have 12 members, but it is currently juggling the resignation letter of one member and must replace another panelist who recently changed jobs.

Panelists at a Hilo meeting last week approved the budget request and heard from some of the seven charter school applicants, which include the Big Island's Ka'u Public Charter School and the Kona Pacific Public Charter School in Kealakekua.

Next year's $72 budget million request for the charter schools increased from this year's $51 million budget, with $3.8 million restored for facilities. About $3.2 million was allocated to charters in 2006-07 to offset the cost of leases and improvements for start-ups, but the facilities funding was discontinued this year.

The budget request also has $1.6 million in retroactive funding for unreimbursed fringe benefits, plus $250,000 for operations of the Charter School Review Panel and a $350,000 substitute teacher fund. The budget also takes increased enrollment from the three new charters into account, Kahakalau said.

The budget request must go to the BOE on its way to the Legislature.

Hawaii Charter School Association president John Thatcher thanked the new panelists for stepping up at a difficult and pivotal time. Thatcher also urged the panel to expedite selection of a permanent executive director of the Charter School Administrative Office and said the charter school association has recommended two individuals for the position.

"The work is starting now; we need to get it together now for the next legislative session," said Thatcher, who is the director of Connections charter school in downtown Hilo.

On the first day of meetings in Hilo, panelist Ruth Tschumy moved for a committee to be formed to investigate any charter school the panel may have a concern with. The motion passed unanimously. The item was the first put forth when the board reconvened following an hour-and-a-half-long executive session.

Steve Hirakami, director of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science in Pahoa, questioned the transparency of the process leading up to the motion.

"This kind of thing comes out of the blue; it's not a good start for openness," Hirakami told the panel. "This is something that should come out of public discussion, not executive session."

Buchanan told the Tribune-Herald that Hirakami was right in one respect: that the panel should have dealt publicly with the issue, at least in general terms.

"But in dealing with specific accusations that may be true or not, it's not fair to bring that out into the public. It's a balancing act," Buchanan said.

While charter school applicants wait in frustration to be certified or denied, Buchanan said the new panel is taking hits from all angles.

"People accuse us of trying to become another BOE, and we're not. We're trying to get a huge amount of work done with no staff and no bylaws," she said. "It's extremely frustrating."

One panelist wrote a letter of resignation this week under the weight of the controversy and workload, Buchanan said.

"She said she didn't need this in her life, and I can see others doing it and that's sad," Buchanan said. "People just scold us. Hopefully it will get better. The law is new; we'll work the kinks out of it. But right now, it's like running through honey. We can't move as fast as we want."

Bret Yager can be reached at


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