Posted on: Monday, November 25, 2002

Charter schools, DOE clash on special-ed money

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

At the Hawai'i Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa, where 17 percent of the students have special needs, administrators were dismayed when they heard the campus wouldn't receive money for special education.

"It was like a bomb," school director Steve Hirakami said. "We're not sure what to do. We're a public school. We cannot discriminate based on disability."

Hirakami has tried to contact the superintendent and members of the Board of Education to make an appeal for money.

"We get, 'Sorry, but ...' " Hirakami said. "It's unbelievable."

He's asked the attorney general's office for an opinion. His next move, he said, may be a civil rights complaint.

The Hawai'i Academy of Arts and Sciences and other charter schools statewide appear to be headed into another battle with the Department of Education regarding finances, this time about money for special-education students.

Charter schools recently found out that this year they will receive $3,805 for every regular education student, an amount that is better than what they received last year but still less than what regular public schools get. Hawai'i spent about $6,487 per student in 2000 school year.

But charter school officials statewide say they do not know when, or if, their campuses will receive any money for their special-education students. The per-pupil allotments, determined recently by the state auditor's office, do not include special-education money.

Urs Bauder with the state auditor's office said that in last year's legislative session, lawmakers expanded the types of funding that charter schools must receive under the law. But they specifically left out the portion of the education budget that deals with the Felix consent decree, the federal court agreement to improve special-education services in Hawai'i.

"The DOE is responsible for complying and didn't want to delegate that to the charter schools," Bauder said. "The idea is that the DOE is going to pay the schools or provide resources."

While many schools have taken issue with the state auditor, officials there say they are only following the charter school legislation and cannot allocate money where it isn't authorized. A report will be ready within a month to fully detail how the auditor's office calculated the allocations.

"The allocation is strictly based on the law as we understand it," Bauder said. "It's somewhat difficult to interpret in some areas, but we follow it as close as humanly possible."

Officials in the DOE's charter schools office were not available for comment.

Previously, charter schools have clashed with the DOE on their budgets, with the DOE and Board of Education accusing several schools of reckless spending. Two schools have filed lawsuits against the department, arguing that they get less state money than other public schools. The DOE last year tried unsuccessfully to shut down a Hilo charter school because of allegations of inadequate facilities and overspending. Complaints of governance problems have surfaced recently at a few schools.

A Board of Education committee this week heard complaints from some parents of students at Ka Waihona O Ka Na'auao school, a Wai'anae charter school that opened in July.

They said parents, teachers and faculty members of the school board have been barred from attending their own meetings by some community members of the board that helped organize the school.

Many parents were outraged by a recent decision by the community faction of the board to fire the principal, two teachers and an aide.

Last month, state Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto requested information about the school's financial operations and personnel decisions. The state is withholding $9,000 from the school until its board responds to the request.

And Shannon Ajifu, chair of the state board's charter schools committee, told other board members this week that the state may need to step up its monitoring of the charter schools.

"We may be behaving in a more proactive manner," Ajifu said.

Despite the growing pains of a new movement, lawmakers took a close look at charter schools last session and strengthened them in several ways. Lawmakers have pushed the department to turn over money to charter schools in a more timely manner. Charter school teachers can accrue tenure and seniority in the state system something they had been denied before only if they were Department of Education teachers before transferring to a charter school. Teachers hired directly by a charter school accrue tenure and seniority in that school only.

While charter schools will no longer be allowed to sue the DOE or Board of Education, and no new startup charter schools will be allowed, Gov. Ben Cayetano in April signed into law a bill that allows nonprofit organizations to convert regular public schools into charter schools. It's a step that will allow Kamehameha Schools to take over some needy campuses with large populations of Native Hawaiian students and give those campuses an infusion of outside money.

The Legislature also authorized an additional 23 conversion charter schools.

Hawai'i was recently awarded nearly $4.4 million in federal grant money to help set up the new public charter schools.

The $4,368,421 will be made available on a competitive basis as grants to public schools that want to convert to charter status. The state plans to offer about $100,000 per year to each successful applicant.

The seed money cannot be used to help with day-to-day operations, but should help with the organization and start up of a campus.

Hawai'i has 25 charter schools, three of which are conversion schools: Lanikai and Wai'alae elementary schools and the Education Laboratory at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

A previous federal grant of $450,000 over a three-year period went to existing charter schools.

Schools that have been identified by the district as needing improvement could choose to apply in an effort to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the new federal education law that mandates yearly improvement in schools.

Charter schools are public schools operating under a contract, or charter, that is created by groups of parents, teachers, administrators and others who want to provide alternatives within the public school system.

Of the state's 25 charter schools, about half are based on Hawaiian culture and language.



Correction: Charter school teachers can accrue tenure and seniority in the state system only if they were Department of Education teachers before transferring to a charter school. Teachers hired directly by a charter school accrue tenure and seniority in that school only. A previous version of this story indicated otherwise. Also, the president of the Hawai'i Association of Charter Schools was misidentified. He is John Thatcher.