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Thompson Academy put on path to probation

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The state Charter School Review Panel voted yesterday to take the first step toward putting Myron B. Thompson Academy on probation for failing to respond seriously to concerns over nepotism and favoritism at the online school.

"All charter schools are being tainted because of Myron B. Thompson’s hiring policies and are being questioned, and it reflects poorly on the panel when nothing is done," said Nina Bu­chanan, panel vice chairwoman. "I think we would question the operational viability of Myron B. Thompson at this time, initiating the steps we can now to hopefully remedy this situation."

The vote was 7-0, with one recusal, to initiate probation and revocation proceedings by conducting a special evaluation of the school. Although the state panel has no say over hiring and firing at individual charter schools, it has authority to grant and revoke charters and put schools on probation.

As a charter school, Thompson Academy is governed by its own local school board and exempt from many state regulations. But its board must answer to the Charter School Review Panel. And because charter schools are public schools, their employees must adhere to the state ethics code and fair-treatment provisions of the law.

"I go back to this notion of the public trust," said Anne Freese, another panel member. "This is the public’s money. The fact that we are getting these delay tactics or lack of response suggests to me that it has not been taken seriously by the people on the board. … They still aren’t addressing what’s going on in the school now."

As reported Dec. 5 in the Star-Advertiser, Thompson Principal Diana Oshiro has four relatives on the payroll at the school. Her sister, Kurumi Kaa­pana-Aki, is a vice principal and also works full time as a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant. One of Kaa­pana-Aki’s sons, who has just a high school diploma, is the athletic director although the school has no sports teams and he does not teach PE. Another son has taught film there for years and just earned an associate’s degree in May, although teachers are supposed to have bachelor’s degrees. A third son is a clerk.

Panel members expressed frustration that none of the 10 members of Thompson’s local school board had come to the panel’s meeting, despite repeated requests, and that the board had failed to submit documentation of its hiring procedures as previously promised.

"It goes to the organizational viability of the school," said panel Chairwoman Ruth Tschumy. "Do they have a functioning school board?"

Malia Chow, chairwoman of Thompson’s local school board, was traveling on the mainland yesterday and missed the panel’s meeting two weeks ago as well. In an e-mail sent to Tschumy, Chow said a new hiring policy was drafted and is undergoing legal review.

"Please know that the Board did take immediate action to draft a new hiring policy that will include a supervision/evaluation procedure," Chow wrote. "Because of the serious nature of these allegations, the Board is proceeding carefully and methodically to ensure we develop a policy that aligns itself to the current Hawaii state ethics code."

Yesterday evening, in response to a request for comment, Chow e-mailed the Star-Advertiser saying she had not yet been notified of the panel’s action. "We take these issues and allegations very seriously and we are in the process of investigating these allegations, as well as working with some academic leaders in our community to review our policies and procedures," Chow wrote.

Oshiro did not respond to a phone call yesterday. Previously she informed the panel that her relatives would remain on staff but not be evaluated by her.

"What’s really, really hurting me is that Myron Thompson, Pinky’s name, is associated with this, for those of us who knew Pinky," said panel member Pua­lani Akaka. After the online school was founded, administrators asked the family’s permission to name it after Thompson, the late Kame­ha­meha Schools trustee and president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Several legislators raised the Thompson situation Wednesday at a briefing on charter schools held by the Senate and House Education committees.

"I think it’s beyond nepotism," said Sen. Pohai Ryan (D, Lani­kai-Wai­ma­nalo). "Though the state might not have a nepotism law at this time, were all laws followed as far as hiring practices? Were these people appropriate for the jobs when they were hired, and are they doing their job when they’re supposed to be doing it?"

Senate Ways and Means Vice Chairwoman Michelle Ki­dani said she was disturbed by the "in-your-face, you-don’t-control-us attitude" shown by school officials.

"Because taxpayer dollars fund the school, that’s serious," Kidani told panel Chairwoman Tschumy. "Your body should look at whether or not they receive funding, if this is not resolved. They don’t want to be questioned. I believe there’s a reason for it."

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