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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lack of funds could force closure of Big Island charter school

Colin M. Stewart
Hawaii Tribune-Herald

Funds have dried up for Waters of Life Public Charter School, and it faces an early end to instruction this year.

The state Charter School Review Panel approved Thursday a motion "strongly urging the local school board to end this school year early because of lack of funds and provide for an orderly transition of its children to other schools to complete the school year," said panel Vice-Chairwoman Ruth Tschumy.

Waters of Life's school board is set to meet Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at St. Theresa Parish, 18-1355 Volcano Highway in Mountain View.

School board members did not respond to requests for comment. Vice Principal and Student Services Coordinator Steve Wilhelm said he could not discuss the school's situation, referring all questions to Principal David Caluya. Multiple calls to Caluya's cell phone were not answered or returned.

The state CSRP attempted to revoke the charter for the Mountain View-based school in June, but Judge Glenn Hara ruled in July that the panel didn't have the authority to do so.

CSRP member Nina K. Buchanan said Friday that while the panel had been given certain responsibilities by the state Board of Education, it didn't have the authority to carry out many of its duties.

"The members of the panel were appointed by the BOE, and given all these things we're to do, but then we don't have the power to do them," she said. "The panel is in a Catch-22, because the court said the most you can do is put (charter schools) on probation."

She said the panel did not appeal the judge's decision, but has helped formulate new rules giving it the teeth it needs to follow through with decisions like charter revocation. The rules are awaiting the governor's approval.

Buchanan added that should the rules be approved, they would not be retroactive, meaning that the panel "would start afresh," with Waters of Life, she said.

The panel previously asked Waters of Life to follow an 18-point probation plan, which required that the school place students in proper facilities and get its finances in order after years of disarray.

School officials said last summer that they had been working with two accountants to straighten out their books, and that they had moved students from facilities previously deemed inadequate.

According to an e-mail from Tschumy, however, "The Charter School Administrative Office's Chief Financial Officer and (Waters of Life)'s business manager agree that the school does not have the financial resources to stay open until May 26, the scheduled last day of school.

"The panel applauds the (local school board), Daniel Caluya, the school's director, and the work of the staff and teachers this year, but financial difficulties inherited from previous years made it an uphill battle for (Waters of Life)."

Tschumy added that while the school is closing for the year, the panel had not taken "action on closing the school, as in revocation of charter."

As of late Friday, it was unclear if parents of students knew of the potential for early closure, or how school officials would handle the process of reassigning students to other schools.

According to Buchanan, about 80 students attend the school's two campuses, in Keaau and Mountain View.

"From the very beginning, back when they received the charter in 2000, there were continuing problems. In fact, in their second or third year, they overspent their budget," she said.

"Throughout the years, they've had a really tough time with funding and facilities," Buchanan said. "What led to the probation was that kids going to Waters of Life were at four or five different sites, and none of them had been properly permitted or inspected."

Buchanan said that funding from the state has been a bone of contention within the charter school community.

She said that proponents of charter schools maintain that under state law, charter schools are entitled to per-pupil funding equal to that provided to public schools operated by the Department of Education.

She said that when she worked to help launch charter schools in Hawaii, "from what we were reading, the DOE dollar amount was maybe $8,000 per pupil. So we thought we'd base our budget on $6,000 per pupil. We ended up getting $4,800 per pupil. We had built a budget based on costs from the DOE. It's an issue that has not been settled to this day."

That difference in funding may have played a part in Waters of Life's budget problems early on, Buchanan said, but in the end, the school's closure may help the case for charter schools.

"I would say if you look at the theory behind charter schools, they have autonomy in exchange for accountability. This is a case where it's too bad but, a charter school that has trouble in any particular area, whether financially or administratively or educationally, can be shut down," she said.

"Right now, we already have seven letters of intent to apply for charters, and several of them are from the Big Island. So if Waters of Life must close its doors, then there'll be another community group to come forward, and another charter school will have an opportunity to succeed."