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Craft nepotism law carefully

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Charter schools in Hawaii are operated with state tax dollars but adhere to fewer state regulations than conventional schools, which has raised questions about the hiring of family members despite scant qualifications. The state Ethics Commission has decided to ask for anti-nepotism legislation that would prevent state workers from hiring or appointing close relatives to public jobs, but a sweeping ban could be excessive if exemptions are not allowed.

The state Charter School Review Panel held a meeting last week to question Diana Oshiro, principal of Myron B. Thompson Academy, a Kakaako charter school, about the hiring of her sister and three nephews. Her sister, Kurumi Kaapana-Aki, a former teacher, remains a vice principal, a full-time job even though she also is a full-time flight attendant for Hawaiian Airlines. Three sons of Kaapana-Aki have part-time jobs at the school: one as the athletic director, although the school has had no sports teams for two years, another as film/video gaming teacher, and the third as a clerk.

In remote, small-town schools, a principal may be justified in hiring relatives because of the shortage of qualified workers. Even so, in such cases, higher officials should be notified of relationships before hiring. Abuses have occurred in charter schools across the country because of the lack of sharp oversight.

The operation of the Thompson Academy has undergone little oversight since it sprang in 2001 from no staff, traditional campus, building, supplies or equipment. It has operated as an online "virtual school" in which students work from home by computer. While regular schools are overseen by the state Board of Education, charter schools have their own boards. The Thompson board had not involved itself in hiring practices, a practice that is slowly being remedied after questions came to light. That is the proper thing to do, and other charter school boards would be wise to review their own institutions to avoid questionable operations.

Charter schools in other states generally are allowed to police themselves, but that level of autonomy can be abused. The founder of a Colorado charter five-school network was found last year to have hired 20 family members during a six-year period, involving insider dealings with board members.

Currently, Hawaii law prohibits state employees from giving themselves or others unwarranted benefits or preferential treatment. The Ethics Commission will be asking the Legislature to enact an anti-nepotism law, which is needed because of the lack of specificity of the present law.

Legislators should pattern an anti-nepotism statute after federal law, which forbids federal employees from hiring or benefiting a broad array of relatives, from spouses to children to cousins to in-laws to step-relatives to half-siblings. Exemptions are allowed under certain circumstances, such as scientific, urgent or other special needs and where "merit-related provisions of federal law have been observed."

Any exemptions to a Hawaii nepotism law, however, should be granted only at the level of the department director. In the case of schools, including charter schools, that should ultimately mean the state superintendent of education.

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