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Stakeholders get more say in revised charter school bill

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A bill to overhaul Hawaii’s charter school system is up for a vote today in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, after legislators were urged to make changes in view of turmoil on a few charter campuses.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs told legislators that the stakeholders in public schools that convert to charter status should have a say in their governance, pointing to flare-ups at two campuses managed by Ho‘o­ka­ko‘o Corp., a Hono­lulu-based nonprofit that is supported by Kamehameha Schools.

"OHA believes that public interest and access to governance in the conversion charter schools is not currently being honored," the agency said in written testimony.

Charter schools report to their own governing boards rather than to the state Board of Education, an effort to keep the campuses rooted in their communities. But the principle of local control has been largely missing in some public schools that converted to charter status.

Under current law a nonprofit with no local stakeholders on its board may operate a conversion charter school if it contributes $1 for every $4 in public funding. Ho‘o­ka­ko‘o Corp. manages three charters: Kamaile Academy in Wai­anae, Wai­mea Middle School on Hawaii island and Kuala­pu‘u School on Molokai.

"OHA notes the difficulties and conflicts between the governing board of a nonprofit organization and the school communities and key stakeholders that the board served at Kamaile Academy in 2010 and recently at Wai­mea Middle School," it testified. "Conversion charter schools are truly community schools, as they serve the community where they have been situated for years. The relationships, talents and resources within those local communities deserve demo­cratic input and participation, especially with respect to governance."

Ho‘okako‘o shocked the Kamaile community in November 2010 by firing the school’s two top administrators, and then earlier this month abruptly announced to Wai­mea students the departure of their principal. Both events sparked uproars on the campuses and calls to replace Ho‘o­ka­ko‘o rather than the principals.

Ho‘okako‘o, made up largely of business and nonprofit executives, said replacing Kamaile’s leadership was necessary to qualify for a federal grant, but gave no rationale for the exit of Wai­mea’s principal, John Colson. Ho‘o­ka­ko‘o’s board, chaired by Keith Vieira of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, later described it as a resignation subject to a confidentiality agreement, but staff and parents say Colson would not have abandoned his students voluntarily midway through the academic year.

The charter school legislation, Senate Bill 2115 SD 1, has been amended in the Education Committee to strengthen provisions for approval by stakeholders before conversion to a charter. Those changes came in response to the recent conversion of Laupahoehoe School on Hawaii island into a charter, which has prompted all its classroom teachers to request transfers to other district schools.

In its testimony, the Hawaii State Teachers Association called on legislators not to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state, saying the proposed revamping of charter legislation was driven by "mistakes made in charter school practices and the lack of accountability," and the cap should not be lifted without first ensuring the new law has the intended results.

Board of Education Chairman Don Horner also advised lawmakers to postpone any move to allow new authorizers of charter schools in the state, citing his board’s "lack of capacity" to meet expectations outlined in the bill.

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