Monday, April 15, 2002


State of Hawaii


Hilo charter school
cuts program


A lack of state funds forces
Connections to shut down classes
for high school students

By Peter Serafin
Special to the Star-Bulletin


HILO >> Officials at the Connections Public Charter School in Hilo said they will be forced to eliminate high school classes next year due to a lack of state funding.

About 70 students will have to find a new high school beginning in August. Connections will continue operating through eighth grade, but under current funding the school can no longer afford to provide upper-level classes, school officials said. State law requires high schools to provide guidance counselors and other specialists, which Connections cannot pay for.

"It's very unfortunate," said John Thatcher, supervising teacher at Connections and president of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools. "The kids are so upset that some are calling the governor and state legislators in support of Senate Bills 2512 and 2036."

The bills, both being debated in the Legislature, would increase funding for charter schools.

The shutdown of Connections' high school program is the latest development in an ongoing conflict between Hawaii's Department of Education and the state's 22 public charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools that are free from most Department of Education regulations, except those involving collective bargaining and health and safety issues.

"The school was told last summer it would get $1.4 million for this year, but that amount was subsequently reduced to $935,000," said David Frankel, attorney for Connections.

According to Tom Helm, the school's director of operations, the school has received about $624,000 of that reduced amount so far. To recover funds the school claims are being illegally withheld, Connections has filed a lawsuit against the department.

On March 28, Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura denied the school's motion for summary judgment in the suit. A trial date has not been set, and the parties are trying to settle the matter out of court.

Helm characterized Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto as being "extremely cooperative" in recent telephone conversations, and he remains "very optimistic for a productive face-to-face meeting with her later this month."

The department has announced adjustments to the formula under which funds were allocated to charter schools. Under the new calculations, Oahu schools will receive an additional $588 a student, while an additional $567 a student will go to neighbor island schools. Charter schools on Oahu and the neighbor islands will now receive per-pupil funding of $3,585 and $3,564, respectively.

The Department of Education says the "true cost" of education is $6,500 a pupil, about the amount given to conventional public schools.

While welcoming the announcement of additional funds, charter school officials remain skeptical.

"It's one thing to say on paper that we're getting $500 more," Ku Kahakalau, director of the Big Island's Kanu O Aina New Century Public Charter School, said last month.

"Once I can access the money, I will have something positive to say," she said, noting then that the state is seven months late in giving charter schools their share of federal grant money.