News from Hilo, Hawaii
Friday, January 11, 2002

Connections school sues BOE

By Dave Smith/ Tribune-Herald

The state Board of Education got more than just leis and a warm welcome when they arrived in Hilo for a meeting Thursday. Board members also were served with a lawsuit challenging the state's treatment of a Hilo charter school.

Representatives of Connections Public Charter School warned state education officials in November that they intended to sue if the state failed to give school officials information about the school's funding.

They followed through on the threat at Thursday's meeting at Hilo Intermediate School, serving each board member with a copy of the lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. Joining Connections as a plaintiff was Zakiya Msikizi, a parent of four Connections students.

The lawsuit charges that the state has failed to properly fund the school, one of 22 created since the passage of Act 62 by the state Legislature in 1999. The lawsuit said the state changed the way the state auditor reimburses charter schools for operational costs, in effect cutting funding to Connections by more than 30 percent and thus denying Connection students "equal protection under the law."

The lawsuit said the Department of Education is violating the state Constitution by forcing Connections from its original home at Mountain View School and not providing sufficient funds for a new location. After serving as a "school within a school" for years at Mountain View, Connections now operates in the Kress building in downtown Hilo.

Tom Helm, chief operating officer for Connections, said the school filed the lawsuit as a last resort.

"It was something we were reluctant to do but we feel it's necessary," he said. "We're just asking for a level playing field."

State school Superintendent Pat Hamamoto, who was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said she could not comment specifically on the lawsuit but added "funding is always a concern for both of us."

Hamamoto said she toured the Connections school Thursday morning.

"It is a school," she said. "It may not look like a traditional school but I don't think that charter schools are designed to look like traditional schools."

Herb Watanabe, the board's Big Island member and its chairman, said he would have to read the lawsuit before he could comment on it.

Board member Donna Ikeda, chair of the board's charter schools committee, called the dispute a "misunderstanding," saying the Department of Education has to follow a formula for reimbursing charter schools.

"I can understand why they feel they've been shortchanged but our hands are tied," she said. "We are not allowed to give them more than the auditor allows."

During the board meeting, Ikeda announced because of the lawsuit meetings of her charter schools committee would be postponed until further notice.

Ikeda, a former state senator, later told the Tribune - Herald that she had hoped to get together with charter school representatives to try to resolve the differences.

"I was hoping to clear the air but that will have to wait," she said.

The lawsuit filed in Circuit Court also names Gov. Ben Cayetano and the Department of Education as defendants. It asks to court to find that the state breached its contract with the school and to force the state to provide the school with appropriate funding.

Another Big Island charter school, Waters of Life, is currently the target of a lawsuit filed by the state attorney general which seeks to shut the school down for allegedly failing to stay within its budget.

Officials from Waters of Life, which operates at the Hawaii Naniloa Hotel, has said their problems stem from DOE accounting procedures similar to those alleged in the Connections complaint.