Hawaii’s only body for authorizing and regulating charter schools, the Charter School Review Panel, lost three of its members recently when the state Board of Education overturned its decision to deny a charter to Laupahoehoe Public Charter School on the Big Island.
One of those three people is Pualani Akaka, a 23-year teaching veteran and fifth grade teacher at Kualapu’u Elementary, Molokai’s only charter school. The other two resigning members were Chairman Carl Takamura and former Chairwoman Ruth Tschumy. All three stated that the BOE’s reversal on appeal of two different decisions concerning Laupahoehoe undermined the Panel’s authority.
In her Jan. 26 letter of resignation, Akaka stated: “I have difficulty believing you considered the children of Laupahoehoe, Hamakua, and Honomu at all. In these decisions, you have undermined six years of work in two months. So, I am done and moving on.”
Akaka has served on the CSRP since its formation in 2007. She was also closely involved in changing over Kualapu’u from a regular public school to a conversion charter school in 2004.
Laupahoehoe is a small rural school on the island of Hawaii with an enrollment of 236 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. In 2009 the school was placed on a list for possible closing. A vote taken in February 2010 by school staff and parents, supervised by the League of Women Voters, was 145-35 in favor of conversion.
Since 2009, test scores improved and the school met Adequate Yearly Progress. With the improvement, staff and school community members testified strongly in favor of maintaining Laupahoehoe as a traditional public school. In its review of the charter’s Detailed Improvement Plan (DIP), the CSRP said creating a charter school would divide the community. Concerns over funding were raised as well.
In August 2011 the BOE unanimously granted the Laupahoehoe application on appeal. In its ruling, the board said the CSRP interpretation was “clearly erroneous” regarding how a charter school is approved. The CSRP asked for a vote of approval from existing school staff. By law, an approval vote can also include parents and other employees of the charter, making the February 2010 vote valid.
After the charter was approved, 20 out of 21 Laupahoehoe teachers asked the BOE to be transferred to different schools.
The second reversal of the Panel’s ruling on Laupahoehoe involved the creation of a local school board. On Jan. 24, the BOE ruled that the charter did not need a local school board before opening for the 2012-13 school year, as the Panel had required. The school board could be elected by Sept. 30, 2012, after the school had opened.
This final reversal was the last straw for Akaka and the other two panel members. Although the Panel had set a deadline of Nov. 21, 2011 to hold a school board election, the BOE considered this decision arbitrary. In the appeal ruling, the BOE said the charter school could not get the “requisite stakeholder groups” in place to hold an election since it was still operating under the Department of Education.
“The BOE and the interim school board may have followed the letter of the law but destroyed the school community,” Akaka wrote in her resignation letter.
Akaka directed some of her frustration toward the BOE-appointed member of the Charter Panel, Jim Williams, a former teacher on Molokai.
“Beside missing half the meetings (yet attending a mainland conference),” Akaka wrote about Williams, “the newly appointed Board member from the start spoke disrespectfully, criticized Panel members personally, and prevented discussions toward consensus. The BOE Panel member also presented personal stances in Panel meetings and reversed himself at Board meetings. Oddly, he seemed proud as if stopping the business of the Panel was an accomplishment. Perhaps this was the original intention of the Board.”
In response, Williams wrote, “I categorically deny that I acted in the manner described. I have no other comment on Ms. Akaka’s letter.”
When contacted for comment, Williams stood firmly behind the BOE ruling. Frustration with the BOE was apparent at a recent Panel meeting when Williams put forward a motion to accept the board’s decision and rescind the Panel’s previous actions on Laupahoehoe. It failed for lack of a second.
Usha Kotner, the current chairperson of the CSRP, remained neutral on the Laupahoehoe decision, citing a conflict of interest for not voting on the matter.
“I hope we can remember that the children are first and foremost in our work and develop a collaborative relationship for the sake of the kids,” said Kotner.