Head of Hawaii charter schools commission resigns

Head of Hawaii charter schools commission resigns
Image: Hawaii News Now
Image: Hawaii News Now
Image: Hawaii News Now
Image: Hawaii News Now

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Three years after taking the helm, the state's first executive director of public charter schools has announced his resignation.

Tom Hutton is stepping down amid growing criticism from school leaders who were unhappy with the legislative changes he was hired to push through.

In 2012, legislators passed a new law to govern charter schools, following a wave of charter school scandals that includes misappropriation of state funds. The massive overhaul included the creation of State Public Charter School Commission to oversee and regulate new accountability guidelines for student progress and school spending.

Hutton said heading up the commission required making changes to a system, with 34 schools, that had largely been free of direct oversight.

"You have to safeguard the public interest, but not stifle the innovation and flexibility that's important throughout the charters and that's always a balancing act and you're always going to be taking shots from both directions that you haven't got it right, that's the nature of the business," he said.

"Schools are feeling under pressure. The funding is tight. They still don't have any help with their facilities. And we have a system now that is providing for accountability where there wasn't before and so a lot of these latent issues are coming to the fore and that's stressful to school leaders. It's things maybe they should have been doing all along but the system was never clear about that, so there's a lot of strain in the system right now."

Hutton says as the person tasked with adding stricter controls to a once nearly unregulated charter school system, he's not the most appropriate person to lead the commission into the future.

"It's not unlike in the corporate setting, where a turnaround specialist comes in and breaks some eggshells to get done what needs to be doing, and then really isn't in the best position to lead people to the next phase," he said. "I think having fresh leadership and these conversations, the timing is right for everybody."

Hutton says he understands the enormous pressure caused by limited funding and new rules, but stands by the charter school mission.

"Charter schooling has incredible promise for our state in terms of trying new things and modeling new things and being a catalyst for system-wide improvement in public education," said Hutton.

His resignation comes as the state Department of Education investigates the Charter School Commission board's role, after many school leaders raised concerns they were being over-regulated.

"The charters are not adverse to being held accountable. We are adverse to being held accountable for a single snapshot approach," said Charlene Hoe, a member of the administration team at Hakipu'u Learning Center Charter School.

"We really want to be more hollistic on how we assess our own programs, how we assess our interfacing with our communities and how we're contributing to student learning."

It's unclear who will succeed Hutton.

Kapono Ciotti, the CEO of the Waialae Elementary Public Charter School, said he found Hutton to be a "strong believer in charter education and I think his decision to step away to me is a showing of his caring for the charter community."

"The agenda he was given specifically with the contract renewal and all the other things would have been challenging for any leader to take on and I think, nearly impossible, but we're hoping that the fresh start will be good not only for him but for the whole charter community as far as redefining excellence and innovation."

Lawmakers behind the sweeping regulatory legislation enacted in 2012 are confident the State Public Charter School Commission board will be able to navigate through this period of transition.

"If we had done absolutely nothing, three plus years ago, I don't know where charter schools would be at all," said state Senator Jill Tokuda, (D - Kaneohe, Kailua). "So while I think the change has been hard, I think it has been absolutely necessary to preserve the autonomy that they have today. Yes, change is never easy and there will always be those who criticize those who have to bear the burden of implementation, but I think we are still in a better place than we were."

Under Hutton's tenure, the state closed it's first charter school, Halau Lokahi, after it stopped paying rent and salaries and ranup $500,000 in debt.

An audit later found poor oversight by the Charter School Commission staff contributed to the school's closing when it failed to recognize the school's critical financial problems.

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