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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 9, 2006

Charter schools criticize ouster

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

An outpouring of support and dismay from many of the state's public charter schools followed news that the Board of Education had dismissed Charter School Administrative Office executive director Jim Shon.

"The charter schools didn't get a chance to weigh in on this decision which affects every charter school child in the state," said Steven Hirakami, principal of the Hawai'i Academy of Arts & Science Public Charter School on the Big Island. He joined with Keola Nakanishi, principal of Halau Ku Mana, representing a dozen culturally focused charter schools, in demanding Shon's reinstatement at a news conference yesterday.

"Jim has done an exceptional job. ... He's exceeded all expectations," Hirakami said. "He's helped to increase the charter school allocations and been fighting to get more money for facilities. And academically our kids are doing great. ... This is going to have long-term effects on our children."

Board of Education members called their own news conference to reiterate support for their decision and the 27 charter schools, but hinted they had been unhappy with Shon's leadership for at least a year, had kept him on a month-to-month contract and were critical of his lack of support of some of their policies.

Shon did not return calls seeking comment yesterday but has scheduled a news conference for today.

"One of the requirements of the executive director is to support board policies and board decisions," said board chairman Randall Yee. "In the past there have been questions in respect to his testimony as to whether or not he was properly stating the board's position."

The principals lauded the accomplishments of their schools under Shon's leadership, saying they had gone ahead in every way academically and financially, as scores, state funding and grants went up. And they called his dismissal a "demoralizing" blow to schools that need stability and should be a role model for the rest of the state.

"One of the biggest problems is instability," said Hirakami, "They have a history of the rug pulled out from under them. ... Who in their right mind would take this over now?"

BOE leaders, meanwhile, said a list of candidates would be gathered from the schools themselves.

"We've had leadership transitions in the past and been able to move forward," said Karen Knudsen, board first vice-chairwoman.

Charter school officials asked whether the charters should have their own separate board and at least one BOE member Cec Heftel agreed. But others quickly said that would parallel the DOE and create a second bureaucracy.

Both sides acknowledged that the charter school executive director must walk a fine line between being an advocate for the schools and an enforcer of board policies.

A key point behind Shon's dismissal appears to have been his efforts at the Legislature this year to both strengthen his charter school office and to keep control as the "authorizing" agency for new charter schools.

In the end, however, the Legislature moved full authority for authorizing new schools to the BOE, and the board is in the process of setting up a Charter School Review Panel to help the board review and evaluate new applications. This can't move forward, however, until the board establishes administrative rules.

To charter schools, this gets to the heart of their mission to be "break out" schools that aren't strangled by bureaucracy.

Dewey Kim, the first executive director of the Charter School Administrative Office, made that point yesterday.

"Give these guys two years and close to equal funding and leave them alone," he said. "They'll create an education system equal to none. ... These guys should be the model for reinventing the other guys."

Charter school supporter and parent Rep. Lynn Finnegan did the same: "Charter schools are supposed to flourish without this tight grasp," she said to the BOE. "You just chopped off their head by firing their director."

But to the BOE, Shon's advocacy was a clear challenge to its authority and its requirement for oversight of the state's off-shoot schools.

Board member Breene Harimoto said he believes it's possible to be both an advocate for charter schools and answer to the board in the regulatory role.

"It's more doable to have just one function rather than trying to do both. Whoever issues the charter is the 'heavy' in the on-going review process. So the CSAO becomes clearly the advocate for charter schools and overseer of the system, and the board has the authorizer function."

Kim said yesterday he had his own difficulties walking that line between being an advocate and an enforcer, and it was one of the reasons he left.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.