State commission revokes Ka’u Learning Academy’s charter amid criminal investigations

Updated: Jul. 9, 2018 at 8:16 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission voted to revoke the charter for Ka'u Learning Academy, amid criminal and ethics investigations into the school's founder.

Internal investigations found that school managers improperly used credit cards and made payments to nonprofits linked to staffers' relatives. A separate Department of Education probe found that KLA padded enrollment and manipulated test scores.

The school's founder Kathryn Tydlacka stepped down in April.

"The school is a business and it wasn't being run very well," said Douglas Flaherty, who was appointed to KLA's board after Tydlacka resigned. He testified against revocation.

"The best example probably was $1,000 a month cell phone bill. When we investigated the cell phones ... we found that half of them were not in the hands of school personnel," Flaherty said.

Flaherty cited other improper expenses:

"We also found payments going to nonprofits that didn't have a direct relationship to the school, except through personnel," he said.

Big Island police have subpoenaed all of the school's computers, financial records and student records.

KLA's new board said it is cooperating with the investigations and has initiated reforms amid the chaos of losing all of their financial records to law enforcement.

It said staff morale and student attendance has improved since April.

"When I first came in, the climate and culture of KLA was not good among staff," said Josh Deweerd, who replaced Tydlacka in April. "It was a culture of fear and retribution."

"The climate and culture completely changed and it completely changed when … teachers felt supported," Deweerd said.

But despite the new board's efforts, the State Public Charter School Commission voted for revocation, saying not doing so would set a bad precedent.

It said it was most troubled by the allegations of test score fraud and enrollment padding.

"There were a few individuals with low test scores that (the school) omitted data and that gave them an advantage on their overall student scores," said Sione Thompson, executive director of the State Public Charter School Commission.

Thompson said administrators hand-picked students with high test scores and escorted them to their offices where staffers coached them on how to take the tests. He said they also looked at students' tests before the students handed in their answers.

"I don't remember in my time as a commissioner ever having reports of test irregularities in this number and in this detail," said Mitch D'Olier, board member of the State Public Charter School Commission.

The DOE investigation also found that the school enrolled 10 eighth graders this year, even though KLA is only permitted to teach third through seventh grades. Three of the students transferred, and seven are now being homeschooled to preserve their credits for attending eighth grade.

The KLA students will now have to attend other schools, and teachers will likely have to find new jobs.

The school can now appeal or reapply for a new charter, which could take two years.

"It's very disappointing," Flaherty said. "We've worked hard for several months and we've addressed the concerns but the commission felt the past issues had to be dealt with."

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