With 2 school leaders accused of crimes, charter schools face more oversight

With 2 school leaders accused of crimes, charter schools face more oversight
Published: Dec. 26, 2013 at 9:56 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 27, 2013 at 12:37 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Criminal cases against several charter school leaders prompted oversight improvements for Hawaii's 33 charter schools, the executive director of the state's charter school commission said.

December 16, state Attorney General's office investigators seized about 70 boxes of records from Myron B. Thompson Academy downtown in a theft investigation.

The state Ethics Commission charged that the sister of the charter school's principal – Kurumi Kaapana-Aki, who's the vice principal -- was missing from school for 144 days over six years because she was off-island working her second full-time job, as a flight attendant with Hawaiian Airlines.

Last month, Jeff Piontek, the fired head of Hawaii Technology Academy, pleaded not guilty to theft. He's charged with stealing more than $150,000 from the state's largest charter school.

"To prevent this kind of thing from occurring, we have a lot of safeguards that weren't in place even a year ago in our state," said Tom Hutton, executive director of the Hawaii Public Charter School Commission.

"This was all an outgrowth of concerns like this that something was not right in Charter-land," Hutton added.

So the legislature repealed the charter school law and replaced the charter school review panel, he said.

For the first time ever, starting with the fiscal year that began July 1, each of the state's 33 charter schools has signed an annual contract with the charter school commission to hold them accountable in three major areas: finances, organization and academics.

"There are requirements in the contract about submitting a range of what are your policies on hiring, on procurement, on personnel, conflict of interest," Hutton said. "Those sorts of things have to be reported to the commission so then we're in a position to evaluate them."

Hutton said both the State Attorney General's office and the State Ethics Commission have offered to train charter school officials, something that will happen as soon as they can set that up.

"There's a good deal more transparency in the system than there was.  All the schools have to do an annual audit that's then reported to the commission, we can take a look at that," Hutton said.

Each school's contract includes a conflict-of-interest policy which covers nepotism requirements.

Hutton said Myron B. Thompson Academy turned in its conflict-of-interest policy to the commission office.  The school's been the target of nepotism allegations since the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported in 2010 that Kaapana-Aki, the principal's sister, was frequently absent from her job as vice principal for the elementary school and worked a second job as a flight attendant.  Three of Kaapana-Aki's sons, who lacked college degrees or teaching licenses, worked for the school.  One of them was athletic director, even though the school had no sports teams.

"We have some things that we think it's worth sitting down with them to talk about their policies. I haven't even had a chance to get into that yet, so I don't want to get into those details," Hutton said.  "But we're arranging a meeting with, they have co-chairs of their governing board and we'll be having a direct governance conversation with the co-chairs of the school to talk through some of those issues."

Hutton said he hoped the good work at many charter schools does not get overlooked because of a few criminal investigations.

"There's a lot of incredibly dedicated, conscientious educators in our charter schools that are doing a terrific job.  And that needs to be acknowledged when we focus on these unfortunate situations that have to be addressed," he said.

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