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Panel wants more answers from Thompson

By Susan Essoyan

LAST UPDATED: 12:13 a.m. HST, Jan 28, 2011

The state panel that oversees charter schools is summoning the head of Myron Thompson Academy's local school board to its meeting tomorrow to answer more questions over hiring practices, amid concern about nepotism and favoritism at the online school.

Thompson Academy Principal Diana Oshiro, who has four relatives on the payroll at her school, appeared at the Charter School Review Panel's last meeting on Jan. 13 and defended her staffing decisions. But the panel was not satisfied and wants to hear more from Malia Chow, chairwoman of Thompson's local school board.

"As chair of the panel, I do not believe the letter you submitted addresses the salient issues brought to light by a Honolulu Star-Advertiser article," Ruth Tschumy wrote in a letter sent to Chow the day after the meeting. She asked Chow to come to the panel's next meeting and bring written documentation of the school's policies on hiring and supervising.

"These should include how jobs are advertised to ensure all qualified applicants have an opportunity to apply; establishment and advertisement of qualifications needed for the job; 'fair treatment' requirements and nepotism prohibitions; further explanation of 'arm's length' supervising of personnel related to the school's head," Tschumy wrote.

As reported last month by the Star-Advertiser, Oshiro's sister Kurumi Kaapana-Aki is a vice principal and oversees Thompson's elementary school while working as a flight attendant for Hawaiian Airlines. Kaapana-Aki's son, who has just a high school diploma, is athletic director although the school has no sports teams and he does not teach its "online PE" course. Another son has taught film at the school for several years and just earned an associate's degree in May. A third son is a clerk. The story quoted former teachers at the school as saying that Oshiro's relatives came and went as they pleased and were not held to the same standards as other staff.

Chow missed the panel's Jan. 13 meeting because of a schedule conflict but submitted a letter saying the school is changing the way it evaluates relatives on staff, so that family members do not assess each other, and beefing up financial oversight. Oshiro told the board her sister will juggle her two jobs by flying only on weekends, since she has so much seniority at Hawaiian Airlines that she can choose her schedule. Oshiro said the athletic director spends his time doing grade checks for Thompson athletes who are competing on other schools' sports teams and organizes activities such as "Jump Rope for Heart."

The situation at Thompson has caught the attention of legislators as well, who are raising red flags about accountability at charter schools. At a recent budget briefing with the Senate Ways and Means Committee, where charter school officials were seeking more funding, legislators raised the issue of Thompson's choice of staff.

"Frankly, it's really difficult for us to sit here and dream up how we're going to provide more funding when we don't feel there's accountability," said Sen. Michelle Kidani, vice chairwoman of both the Ways and Means and Education committees. "It does not look good in the public eye. I would like it investigated further."

Charter schools are public schools that report to their own school boards, rather than the state Board of Education, and are free of many state regulations. The Charter School Review Panel has the authority to grant and revoke charters for public schools and put charter schools on probation.

The House and Senate committees on education will hold an informational briefing today to hear from charter school officials on "the structure and support of Hawaii's charter schools and the challenges and opportunities they face."

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