Charter school behind in carrying out reforms


POSTED: Monday, October 27, 2008

HILO » Waters of Life Public Charter School, in repeated financial trouble since its founding eight years ago, has fallen behind in meeting probation requirements set by the state Charter School Review Panel in June, the panel said last week.

The panel was reviewing the status of the 153-student school with classes at three sites south of Hilo.

Panel Vice Chairwoman Ruth Tschumy told school officials that “;vague accounting”; needs to be cleared up “;with all haste.”;

Those sentiments were echoed by panel member Tom McDonald.

“;You don't have financial procedures in place,”; he said.

Using state funds, the school has paid almost half of the $435,000 purchase price of a 28-acre farm, but that purchase now is in danger, McDonald said.

“;If the foreclosure goes through, $200,000 in state tax money goes down the tube,”; McDonald said.

The assertion was disputed by school attorney Steve Strauss, who said a nonprofit organization might buy the farm for the school, or the purchase could be retroactively converted to a lease.

Some problems are beyond the school's control, said school Administrator Katheryn Crayton-Shay.

In June the panel ordered financial reports by the 10th of every month. But the school does not get bank statements until after the 10th, Crayton-Shay said.

The panel voted to change the deadline.

Hawaii's 31 charter schools operate with state funding under the umbrella of a state administrative office, but with their own autonomous board. While they must provide a system of accountability for student achievement, charter schools offer an alternative to standard public schools through innovation or a particular emphasis such as technology or Hawaiian language.

Waters of Life, or Na Wai Ola, Charter School has special programs in robotics, ocean studies and agriculture.

Besides finances, the panel was concerned about safety of the school sites, two churches and a performing arts center.

Three times the school requested building inspections from the county, but nothing happened, Crayton-Shay said.

“;They didn't even have a file for us,”; Strauss added.

County officials admitted they respond only to complaints, and they have no specific standards for schools, Crayton-Shay said.

School inspections are normally done by the state Department of Accounting and General Services, Strauss said.

The school has filed a lawsuit to undo the school's probation, Strauss said. The panel has no administrative rules giving it authority to impose probation, he said.

The kindest words came from panel member Nina Buchanan, who said, “;We appreciate the strides you're making.”; But she too wanted more accountability.