Charter schools panel struggles to
find its way
by Bret YagerThe
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.
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.
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
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.
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
"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
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,
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
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.
director of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science in Pahoa,
questioned the transparency of the process leading up to the
"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
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
"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.
charter school applicants wait in frustration to be certified
or denied, Buchanan said the new panel is taking hits from all
"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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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