Waters of Life gets
vote from committee
to keep going

The charter school's future
now goes to a full board vote

A Board of Education committee yesterday voted against shutting down the Na Wai Ola Waters of Life charter school on the Big Island.

Board members instead signaled a willingness to help charter schools address some of the problems they face.

The decision, if confirmed later this week by the full board, is likely to come as a relief to the state's 27 charter schools. Revoking Waters of Life's charter would have set a harsh precedent, according to supporters of charter schools.

"This creates a good precedent of the BOE working with the schools. It shows that the BOE is interested in seeing them succeed," said Jim Shon, executive director of the Charter Schools Administrative Office.

The board's charter school committee had met to consider revocation of the Big Island school's state charter in the wake of a January report by the state auditor that sharply criticized the school's management.

But the committee recommended that the Board of Education back off under a deal in which Waters of Life agreed to a specific timetable to pay back about $200,000 it owes the state, address school location and zoning concerns, and resolve financial management problems.

While happy with the committee's decision, Waters of Life administrator Katheryn Crayton-Shay said the school faces an uphill climb in resolving its facilities problems.

"This isn't even the beginning. You wouldn't believe what I inherited here," said Crayton-Shay, who took over late last year.

Waters of Life is perhaps the most extreme example of the challenges faced by charter schools, intended as experimental alternatives to regular public schools.

Charter schools are granted wide latitude on curricula and spending decisions, and have performed better than other schools on some standardized tests.

But some have struggled financially, in large part because the state is not responsible for providing and maintaining charter school facilities.

The state audit pointed to a history of poor business decisions by the school that threatened its viability. The school also has moved several times since its inception in 2000 and is currently spread out among four locations near Pahoa.

Crayton-Shay said the school's financial troubles stem in part from the state's past broken promises on funding for charter schools that denied Waters of Life tens of thousands of dollars.

Committee chair Randall Yee acknowledged the funding shortfall played a part in the troubles experienced by some charter schools and said the board intends to "work out agreements on back payments" with schools once the amounts can be verified.

However, he stopped short of promising to forgive debts or seek to restore promised funding.

In sparing Waters of Life, the board avoids stirring up potential legal issues. The state audit placed some of the blame for Waters of Life's problems on "lax oversight" by the board, and it's unclear how legally sound a revocation order would be under the current charter school law, which also was criticized as unclear.

Revoking the Waters of Life charter would have "opened a wide range of legal issues and due-process issues," Shon said.

A number of bills relating to charter schools are winding their way through the Legislature, including measures that would increase funding for charter schools and eliminate gray areas in the law.

Waters of Life ninth-grader Sarah Ecklund thanked the committee, saying the school's loving environment and focus on students helped her improve from a third-grade reading level to an eighth-grade level since switching from a traditional public school in 2003.

"Things are better there. You can get the learning that you need. That's the way it's supposed to be," she said.

State Department of Education
State Board of Education

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