State charter school leader fired

BOE says Shon wasn't taking program in right direction

by Nancy Cook Lauer
Stephens Honolulu Bureau

HONOLULU -- Saying he wasn't taking charter schools in the direction they needed to go, members of the Board of Education on Friday defended firing the head of the Charter School Administrative Office, even as charter school officials decried the move as a power play by the board.

The action also exposed dissent on the BOE about whether the board should govern charter schools at all, or whether a new board should be created to run them.

The board voted not to renew the contract of Charter Schools Director Jim Shon in a closed session Thursday night. BOE members at Friday's news conference acknowledged that grant money has increased and test scores have risen at charter schools during Shon's two-year tenure, and they praised the director for some of his work.

"There are a lot of good things that Dr. Shon has done over the approximately two years that he's served," said BOE Chairman Randall Yee, "But in terms of the board's decision and deliberation, we felt that we were ready to go in a different direction."

The BOE will ask charter schools to compile a list of recommended candidates, but the board has sole discretion on hiring and firing the director. It's not known how long that process will take, or how long it will be before an interim director is appointed.

Yee said he wasn't at liberty to talk about what that direction might be until the board has more time to discuss it. He said he would also be talking more at length with Shon, whom Yee notified of his termination by telephone Thursday night. Shon could not be reached for comment.

At their own news conference, a group of principals and officials of charter schools blasted the board for not allowing the state's 27 charter schools to have a say in the decision. Two percent of the $49 million charter school budget goes to the administrative office and director's salary.

"Things are going smoothly. Academically, our kids are doing great," said Steve Hirakami, director of Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science in Pahoa and himself a former executive director of the charter schools office. "Who in their right mind would take over this position when after one year, you get evaluated (behind) closed doors, and then the decision is, pack your bags and get going?"

Hirakami noted that charter schools often accept students who aren't thriving in the public school system and help them turn their lives around. He noted that students at his school help paint the walls, compared to students in the public schools who are often vandalizing them.

His feelings were echoed by Curtis Muraoka, co-director of West Hawaii Explorations in Kailua-Kona, who accused the BOE of political maneuvering.

"The actions of the BOE have created the undeniable appearance that elements in the BOE actively and tacitly block charter school progress," Muraoka said in a statement. "We view this as another in a long line of barriers erected by the BOE and are disheartened that progress in education comes with this kind of price."

Those on both sides of the issue agree that one of the problems is the current requirement that the director be both an advocate for charter schools and their policeman. Former directors say the dual role is difficult, and it seems at times that the BOE is interested only in the oversight function, not the advocacy one.

Shon managed to rile some board members by lobbying the Legislature over control of the authorization of new charter schools. His termination shouldn't have come as a surprise: He'd been on a month-to-month contract for a year.

"One of the requirements is that the executive director support board policies and board decisions," Yee said. "There have been questions with respect to his testimony as to whether or not he was properly stating the board's position."

On the larger issue of who should govern charter schools, BOE member Cec Heftel, vice-chairman of the board committee on charter schools, said he thinks they should have their own separate board.

"I think the charter schools should have a separate board of leadership and responsibility unrelated to the Board of Education," Heftel said. "I think there should be a separate board for charter schools, and I think they should feel that they are equally important in this community as all other schools."

Heftel was in the minority on that one. Other BOE members were quick to disagree.

"While there are good reasons why you might think it would be advantageous to have a separate board, I think the real problem would be then you would need a separate department, the infrastructure to support that separate board," said BOE member Breene Harimoto, "and if you look at all that, it would be a duplicate of the (Department of Education), and I'm not sure that people understand that."

Nancy Cook Lauer can be reached at


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