Judge refuses to shut Hilo charter school
By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
HILO, Hawai'i A Big Island judge yesterday dismissed a state request to shut down Waters of Life Charter School in Hilo, criticizing education officials for their mishandling of charter school programs in general.
Judge Riki May Amano said the state has every right to demand fiscal responsibility from the publicly financed charter schools, but must follow state law that entitles the schools to a two-year period to fix any problems once they are noted.
Acting on behalf of the Department of Education, the state attorney general's office requested an injunction in September to close the 2-year-old charter school for alleged health, safety and zoning violations and for overspending more than $170,000 during its first year.
Deputy Attorney General Steven Chang initially sought to close down the school for holding classes in a hotel, but in an earlier hearing, Amano ruled that to be a matter for county planning authorities.
During yesterday's daylong hearing, Chang stated the state was justified in taking action against Waters of Life, one of 11 charter schools on the Big Island.
But Amano rejected that argument and said the Board of Education has failed to set up financial oversight of Hawai'i's 22 charter schools. "The Board of Education has to make them accountable and get it under control," she said.
The judge said she was "troubled" by the state's action against the Waters of Life Charter School and accused the attorney general's office of trying to get the court to "intervene and micromanage" the situation.
Charter schools, authorized by the Legislature in 1999, are part of the Department of Education but have the freedom to manage their own curriculum and budget.
Truitt White, director of the Waters of Life Charter School, said he was pleased with Amano's decision. "We can go back to work now. We have some big problems," he said.
The school has a growing deficit and is dealing with reduced state support. White said Waters of Life has cut its faculty and staff from 24 to 15 and last month moved its operations from the Hawai'i Nani-loa Hotel to the Boys and Girls Club in Hilo, reducing rental costs from $3,500 to $1,500 a month.
Since the dispute began almost five months ago, enrollment has dropped from 100 to 75 students and the school has stopped its fine arts and agricultural programs and is using more parent volunteers to cut costs.