Charter schools are often started by passionate leaders, and having a relative or two on staff is not uncommon in Hawaii.
"If the best person is hired for the position, then the school’s children are well served," said Ruth Tschumy, chairwoman of the state Charter School Review Panel, which approves and revokes charters. "If the person is hired not on his or her merits or qualifications, but rather on kinship or affiliation with the hirer, then the school’s children are not well served."
Unlike a family business, charter schools are publicly funded. But they enjoy greater freedom from state regulations than the typical public school. Each charter school reports to its own local school board, not to the state Board of Education. The charter school’s board typically hires the principal, and the principal chooses the staff.
"Each local school board is in charge of the charter school’s policies and their hiring practices," said Maunalei Love, executive director of the Charter School Administrative Office. "We do not have a policy on nepotism because we’re not trying to tell them what to do."
After being contacted by the Star-Advertiser about the number of family members on the payroll at Myron B. Thompson Academy, the Charter School Review Panel took some action.
"Since we’ve last talked, we did ask the Charter School Administrative Office to write a sample best hiring practice that schools might use," Tschumy said Thursday. "The panel’s accountability committee has asked schools to send us their hiring and nepotism policies so that they can be shared with all the schools. This matter had not been brought to our attention until you called."
The panel believes that hiring should be open and fair, with positions advertised so that all candidates have a chance, and qualifications for different positions spelled out, she said. If a relative is hired, the head of school should not supervise or evaluate that relative, she added.
In Hilo, Principal John Thatcher and his wife were founders of Connections Public Charter School and she still serves as a teacher. The school uses a peer-directed evaluation system for teachers, so Thatcher does not assess her performance.
"Families make up communities and many successful businesses are family owned," Thatcher said. "With so many children living in one-parent families, our emphasis on ohana helps our students develop a sense of ‘place.’ We do not condone favoritism of any kind."
Some charter schools go further. Halau Ku Mana, a Hawaiian-focused charter school in Makiki Heights, adopted a strict anti-nepotism policy this year that resulted in the layoff of two administrative staff members because they were married to other staffers. Neither supervised their spouse, and both were performing well, according to Executive Director Patti Cronin, who initiated the policy with her school board’s approval.
"For me, in organizations that I’ve worked with, having family-related members just does not work out well for a lot of reasons," she said.