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Hawaii News

Close ties color boards’ decisions

Some of Hawaii’s charter school boards are so closely entwined with their school’s leadership that the relationships could limit their ability to exercise independent oversight, a critical component to ensuring success.

Each volunteer board is responsible for governing the school, hiring the principal, setting policy and ensuring financial and academic viability, but a few might simply let the principal call the shots.

Some recent cases that have raised concern:

Official returns to job after serving jail term

» Board members of Kula Aupuni Niihau a Kahelelani Aloha, a tiny bilingual school in Kekaha, Kauai, are related to the school’s administrator and defer to her in fiscal matters, according to a recent independent financial audit.

"During our audit, we noted very minimal fiscal oversight by the Board of Directors and no Finance Committee," auditors concluded. "The fiscal operations and control are left to the Principal and the Accountant. The Local School Board currently does not have a member well versed in fiscal controls or financial statements."

Administrator Hedy Sullivan said that she and the board work closely together, and "we’re all related because we’re all from Niihau," but she has no close relatives on the board. In response to the auditor’s concerns, the board is seeking a new member who has an accounting background to help exert fiscal oversight.

In 2005 the board made headlines when it kept Sullivan on the job as head of the school even after she had pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree assault for tying up her 11-year-old son and beating him with a bat. Police found the boy with his hands tied behind his back, a black eye, bruises all over his body and rope marks around his neck.

Sullivan lost custody of the child, whom she had adopted. She was later sentenced to a year in prison for the crime, and her husband filled in for her as administrator. Upon her release in 2006, she went back to her position at the school, and completed five years of probation last June.

Sullivan said she makes sure any family enrolling a child is aware of her criminal background. She added that the board consulted with the school community before unanimously voting to retain her. "I’m not making any excuses for what I did," Sullivan said.

State education officials said they were powerless to intervene at the time because the local board was the "autonomous governing body" of the school. But the head of the Charter School Review Panel said she thinks it might be handled differently today.

"In this particular case, the Charter School Review Panel was not in existence, but had it been, I believe it might have seen the board’s action as a possible safety issue for the school’s children and taken some action," said Ruth Tschumy, panel chairwoman.

Hoe family has teaching, board roles at Hakipuu

» Hakipuu Learning Center in Kaneohe is a public school, but it is also a family venture, founded by Charlene and Calvin Hoe and their three sons in 2001. Today, Kala Hoe is chairman of the local school board, while his mother, Charlene, is a key administrator.

Kala and his brother Kawai teach at Hakipuu along with a niece who is an educational assistant. Another brother, Liko, serves on the board, and Calvin is a full-time volunteer on the campus, which has 67 students.

A bill to prohibit a relative of the head of a charter school or an employee of that school from serving as chairman of its local school board was unanimously approved by the Senate Education Committee earlier this year, with support from Kamehameha Schools, Hookakoo Corp., the Charter School Administrative Office and the Charter School Review Panel. But it did not get a hearing in the Judiciary and Labor Committee, chaired by Sen. Clayton Hee, (D, Kahuku-Kaneohe) and died.

Ipo Cain, head of the local school board at a Hawaii island charter school, said having relatives oversee each other’s use of state school funds is inappropriate. "They would have to recuse themselves too often to be effective leaders," Cain said. "It has potential for conflict, and so you have to be careful. Why not just avoid it?"

But Charlene Hoe, who at one time was director of the office of strategic planning for Kamehameha Schools, said fostering a sense of ohana is part of the school’s mission. Her family members are qualified for their positions, and it is not a question of nepotism, she said.

"To me that’s not the issue; the issue is getting good people on your board," Hoe said. "We have one of the most active boards. They stay at the policy level."

Hawaii has no law specifically addressing nepotism, but 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 interests or those of their spouse or dependent child.

Thompson investigated on nepotism, fund use

» Myron B. Thompson Academy, an online school in Kakaako, has been under scrutiny since December after former staff members complained publicly about nepotism and favor- itism at that school. The principal’s sister runs the elementary school while holding down a full-time job as a flight attendant.

The principal’s three nephews are also on the payroll. One was the athletic director until it became public that the school has had no sports teams for two years. His title was recently changed to "student support assistant." Critics claimed family members were held to different standards as far as attendance and teaching qualifications.

An independent financial audit also raised questions about a "donation" of $175,000 of the school’s state funds to an affiliated nonprofit, noting there was no indication that the board had discussed or approved the unusual transaction. Until December the principal took minutes for the board’s quarterly meetings, some conducted via conference call. Her notes were brief and often failed to indicate who attended or details of discussions and decisions.

The Charter School Review Panel began investigating the situation, concerned that the school might not have followed fair hiring practices or rules that forbid state employees for working for private entities on state time. Last month it referred the matter to the Ethics Commission and the attorney general, saying it lacked adequate investigative tools such as subpoena power.

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