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School keeps principal’s kin as personnel

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Diana Oshiro, principal of Myron B. Thompson Academy, told state officials yesterday the charter school is changing the way it evaluates relatives on staff and is beefing up financial oversight, but her sister and three nephews are keeping their jobs at the online public school.

The state Charter School Review Panel invited Thompson officials to its meeting yesterday to address concerns raised last month in Star-Advertiser articles about nepotism at the school and the qualifications and productivity of family members who work there.

"Although it has been a challenging couple of months, we do appreciate the fact that we’re going through the challenges to make us better," Oshiro said. "We as a school collectively have attended to this, led by a board that has always been supportive from day one. They know there are things we need to change. We need to do better."

Charter schools are publicly funded but have greater autonomy than other state schools. They report to their own local school boards, which are in charge of policies and hiring practices.

Oshiro told the panel that supervisors at Thompson Academy will not take part in performance evaluations of family members. Instead a consulting group with expertise in online instruction will join other staff members in assessing teachers who are related to the principal. Because three of the school’s four administrators are related, the consultant will also complete yearly reports on their progress for Thompson’s board. That board will also deliver any disciplinary action if needed for employees related to the principal.

As reported last month, Oshiro’s sister, Kurumi Kaapana-Aki, is a vice principal overseeing Thompson’s elementary school and works full time as a flight attendant for Hawaiian Airlines. Kaapana-Aki’s son, who has just a high school diploma, is the athletic director, although the school has had no sports teams for two years and he does not teach the online PE course. Another of her sons, who has taught film/video gaming for several years at the school, just earned his associate’s degree in May. The third son works as a clerk.

Although teachers in Hawaii’s public schools are supposed to have bachelor’s degrees, Oshiro said she believes the nephews’ qualifications are adequate because they are handling elective subjects. She said the athletic director does eligibility lists and grade checks for Thompson students who play on sports teams at other schools. He also tutors athletes and helps with elementary school field days such as "Jump Rope for Heart."

As for her sister’s job as a flight attendant, Oshiro said Kaapana-Aki will fly only on nonschool days.

"That individual is extremely senior at that other job, and that senior level allows you to select your schedule," Oshiro said. "So she will fly on the weekends only."

Asked by panel member Carl Takamura whether it was the school’s policy to allow full-time employees to have other full-time jobs, Oshiro replied, "It’s not a policy, but we have allowed people to have other jobs."

Ruth Tschumy, chairwoman of the Charter School Review Panel, said the state Ethics Commission has asked the panel to look into the issue of nepotism. At yesterday’s meeting she emphasized that charter school employees are state employees and must follow the state Ethics Code, which prohibits giving preferential treatment.

"Our concern is just that we would like all of our schools to be following best practices in hiring and supervising," Tschumy said. "And certainly, school employees are state employees, and our concern is that all of our schools follow the state ethics code."

Oshiro said Thompson’s board also is considering a new hiring policy.

While Hawaii law does not bar nepotism, the fair treatment law prohibits state employees from giving themselves or anyone else unwarranted benefits or preferential treatment. The conflict-of-interest law says state employees cannot take discretionary state action that affects their own financial interest or those of their spouse or dependent child.

The state Ethics Commission voted Wednesday to submit an anti-nepotism law at the Legislature that would prevent state workers from hiring or appointing close relatives to public jobs.

Another change being adopted at Thompson will have the school board review and approve salaries of all administrators and relatives on staff. Last month, school officials declined to reveal those salaries, but a 2008 payroll document obtained by the Star-Advertiser showed athletic director Andrew Aki and film teacher Zuri Aki each earning $28,800 annually for working half time, while their brother Hanan earned $22,100 as a part-time clerk.

Thompson’s school board Chairwoman Malia Chow did not attend yesterday’s meeting due to a scheduling conflict. A letter she submitted to the panel said the board will take a stronger role in financial matters, with the board’s treasurer providing the second signature on all school checks. The treasurer will also be the first to review monthly financial reports from the bank.

"Although the past few months have been challenging, the changes made to our policies, procedures and practices have greatly improved our school operations, school climate and increased student registration for next school year," Chow wrote.

It is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and is about to undergo reaccreditation. David Brown, the association’s executive director, said yesterday it does not have a specific policy on nepotism, but human resources practices and evaluation of staff are included in a school’s "self-study."

"Sometimes I’ve been in situations where people who are not only incompetent, but totally inappropriate are in place because of familial influence, but I’ve also been in many more operations that involved family members where you would not want them to exclude those people because they had a relative," he said. "If it were identified as an issue, it could affect our evaluation."

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