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New financial questions raised at charter school

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Derrick Lord, left, Myron B. Thompson Academy information technology director, Myron K. Thompson, academy board co-chairman, and Jo-Ann Leong, academy board member, appeared yesterday before the state Charter School Review Panel to testify in support of the school.

Parents and teachers from Myron B. Thompson Academy turned out in force to support their school yesterday as members of a state panel raised new concerns about the charter school’s financial management.

"Our HSA scores have improved to meet and exceed adequate yearly prog­ress, and our students are being honored in more ways than ever," English teacher Elizabeth Gian­fran­cisco told the Charter School Review Panel. "Isn’t this really what teaching is all about? It’s not about us, the adults. It’s about the kids and the education that they will receive. I truly believe our students are receiving an excellent education."

About 40 supporters filled the room, and applauded after parents praised the quality of education their children are getting at the online school, based in Kakaako. Suzanne Lott, who has home-schooled all her children, said Thompson Academy gives her the flexibility to choose curriculum to meet her youngest son’s learning patterns and that he has thrived with guidance from Thompson’s teachers.

Panel members assured the audience that their concerns center on hiring practices and whether public money is properly spent at Thompson, and they are not questioning the school’s academic performance.

The panel has been reviewing whether four relatives of Principal Diana Oshiro on staff were hired fairly under state law, and whether they are qualified and doing their jobs.

"This has never been about the worth and value of the school," said panel Chairwoman Ruth Tschumy. "The school is a fine school. The issue has been whether the board has been providing proper oversight."

As a charter school, Thompson Academy is publicly funded and offers a free education but is exempt from many state regulations. It reports to its own school board rather than the state Board of Education but must adhere to the state ethics code and fair-treatment provisions of the law.

Oshiro’s sister, Kurumi Kaa­pana-Aki, is vice principal of the elementary school and also works as a full-time flight attendant for Hawaiian Airlines. Kaa­pana-Aki’s son, Andrew Aki, has been the school’s athletic director although it has had no sports teams for two years. He and his brother, Zuri, the video teacher, were hired several years ago with just high school degrees, and Zuri earned his associate’s degree in digital media last year. A third brother works as a clerk. Documents submitted to the panel noted that no other applicants were considered when each family member was hired.

Myron K. Thompson, eldest son of the school’s namesake and co-chairman of its board, said yesterday that he and other members of the board have looked into the hiring matter and are satisfied that Kaa­pana-Aki has been fulfilling her job responsibilities. If she flew during the week, she took personal leave, and when she flew overnight she got to school on time in the morning, according to board member Jo-Ann Leong.

As for Andrew Aki, the athletic director, his title was changed in the last month to "student support assistant" to be more in line with his actual job.

Thompson emphasized that the board recently went through extensive training and has adopted policies to beef up financial accountability and "allow us to detect and correct anything that may go astray."

"We feel we’ve made strides in a huge way," he said. "We basically understand much better our role. Our role is to provide oversight to the school and answer to the taxpayers, justify them giving us money. And we feel we’ve done that."

Although school officials pleaded with the panel to stop its investigation for fear it is harming the school’s reputation, new questions about financial management came up yesterday in connection with an independent financial audit of the school’s books for the year ending June 30.

The auditor noted that Kaa­pana-Aki received a $35,000 bonus, or "administrative differential," in addition to her regular pay as vice principal last year. The auditor also flagged an "unusual related-party disbursement" by the school, which receives 95 percent of its income from the government. According to its financial statements, Thompson Academy made a $175,000 "donation" last year to Ho’i­lina Inc., a nonprofit foundation set up to support the school.

"Ordinarily it works the other way around," said panel member Wendy Laga­reta. "The nonprofit goes out to get money for the school. The school doesn’t give money to the nonprofit. It is very difficult to understand. Those are state funds that are allocated for the students and not for the support of a nonprofit."

"The $35,000 ‘differential pay’ is also very questionable," she added. "That’s a big amount of money."

The auditor noted that the board had not discussed or mentioned in its minutes the salary of family members or the unusual gift. Thompson said the $175,000 donation was agreed to by the principal and the nonprofit’s president and was supposed to be for "consultative serv­ices" on developing educational facilities, a school safety plan and serv­ices for special-needs students.

"How can you authorize a transfer of that large an amount if the board didn’t discuss it and approve it?" asked panel member Carl Taka­mura. "That’s kind of scary, if you folks aren’t aware of it and somebody’s transferring large sums of money."

The audit was conducted as part of a new requirement for annual financial audits of each of the state’s 31 charter schools, part of an effort by the panel to ensure accountability for their use of public funds.

At the Legislature on Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee amended a bill to sharpen oversight of the local school boards that manage charter schools. House Bill 159, SD 1, adds language that would allow the Charter School Review Panel to require a local school board to undergo mandatory training if it is failing in its oversight responsibilities, and, in extreme cases, even require a board to be reconstituted.

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