Charter schools fight to keep on

By Hunter Bishop/ Tribune-Herald

State Department of Education criticized for cutting funds, support .

Survival was the key word as leaders of more than 20 public charter schools in the state met this weekend in Hilo at the second annual conference of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools.

Members of the troubled HACS grappled with the problem of dwindling state funds and declining support from the state Department of Education that threaten to doom the fledgling charter school movement in Hawaii.

Tom Helm, chief executive officer at Connections Public Charter School in Hilo, said his and other schools, each of which has its own independent school board, are exploring legal remedies to loosen the state's purse strings and ease the legal restraints that are making it difficult for the charter schools to continue.

"A number of schools are getting legal advice," Helm said. "Some have asked their boards for authority to seek legal counsel."

One aspect of the law, Helm said, says charter schools should be receiving their funds directly from the Legislature rather than through the state Department of Education, whose bureaucracy charter schools were supposed to be freed from by design in order to pursue more innovative teaching and school curriculums.

HACS vice president John Thatcher, also a teacher at the school, said the state is violating numerous provisions of the 1999 law that laid the groundwork for public charter schools in the state. Eleven of 25 charter schools authorized by the state Board of Education under the law are on the Big Island.

Helms said the outcome of a hearing Wednesday on the fate of the Waters of Life Public Charter School, which is the target of a lawsuit by the state to shut it down over a $170,000 budget deficit and health and safety code violations, may determine the association's course of action.

Thatcher said the severe reduction in state funding to charter schools has put them all at risk of spending deficits and closure if the state is successful in court against Waters of Life. Charter schools were set up expecting to receive the amount of money it takes to educate a child in a traditional school, about $7,000 per student, but this year the DOE has provided charter schools less than $3,000 per student, he said.

"It's not a funding issue," Helm said. "Unfortunately it is a political issue. It bears investigation. What is transpiring is not proper."

HACS President Libby Oshiyama said support for the association coming from the DOE "has been ... nil." The primary goal of the association should be to make sure it exists a year from now, Oshiyama said. "Without the association, there would be no charter schools," she said, "and vice versa."

Nearly 200 conferees from throughout Hawaii and the mainland attended the two - day conference at the Hawaii Naniloa Resort.

Former state Schools Superintendent Paul G. LeMahieu gave the keynote address Friday. LeMahieu, who resigned last month after admitting to an affair with a consultant who received a non - bid contract to provide Felix consent decree services for the DOE, is being courted by the association for a possible role in helping the organization's efforts to keep the charter school movement alive in Hawaii.