Kona Pacific Public Charter School is challenging an official notice it received from the state Charter School Commission that could lead to the closure of its bucolic campus in Kealakekua on Hawaii island.
Founded in 2008, Kona Pacific is the only public Waldorf school in the state, with 226 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
The commission issued the “notice of possible revocation” of the school’s charter on March 18, which is the first step toward closing the school if problems are not remedied. Kona Pacific’s governing board has demanded the notice be rescinded on technical and other grounds.
Cecilia Royale, chairwoman of the governing board, called the commission’s notice “wholly unexpected” and said “the issues that the school has been experiencing are growing pains.”
“The school has been working collaboratively with the Charter School Commission for several years and has addressed and remediated every single issue that the commission has identified as a problem,” said Royale, who joined the board in October. “There are no issues that cannot be identified and easily fixed.”
But the commission’s executive director, Sione Thompson, said authorities followed proper procedures in issuing the notice, which highlighted several concerns.
Commissioners cited financial problems at the school, including a negative bank balance of $18,000 in July, as well as “continuous over-payment of lease rent” to its affiliated nonprofit, Friends of Kona Pacific Charter School.
“In July, the first month of this full fiscal year, they actually were not able to make payroll,” Thompson said. “They used this year’s allocation to pay last year’s payroll. We didn’t find out at the time.”
In issuing the notice, commissioners also objected to the school co-mingling funds with its nonprofit and “conflicts of interest and ethical concerns with the governing board and employees of the school.” They alleged the nonprofit, which is Kona Pacific’s landlord, was “driving the financial decisions of the school’s governing board.”
In December 2017, the commission issued a “notice of concern” after learning from current and former staff that the school had inflated enrollment numbers, which increased state funding. The school says it took corrective action and is budgeting funds to repay the state.
The commission also issued notices of concern this past December about Kona Pacific’s financial and academic performance.
In response, the school has adopted new billing, banking, petty cash, accounting and filing procedures with greater controls, according to its governing board. It has shored up its student record system and is conducting an internal audit of those records.
The school board said it has straightened out lease rent issues with its nonprofit and has a memorandum of agreement to better define the separate roles of the nonprofit and the school. And it has come up with a corrective action plan for academics.
In February, the commission received a complaint and petition from members of the faculty and community calling for the resignation of the governing board and asking the commission for help.
School staff members reported at a commission meeting in Kona on Feb. 28 that they were fearful of retaliation by board members. Parents testified they value the education their children are getting but raised concerns about board actions and turnover in school leadership.
Thompson said the commission has limited means at its disposal to help schools remedy problems. Issuing the “notice of possible revocation” could lead to replacement of the governing board in lieu of closure, he said.
“I wish the commission had more tools,” he said. “Our desire is to ensure that there is a high-functioning school for kids there.”
The next step in the process would be a hearing on the case by the commission.
Kona Pacific follows the Waldorf method of experiential, multisensory education that responds to different stages of a child’s development.
“Our school offers a time-tested curriculum with a rich blend of academics and arts,” Royale said. “The loss of this unique and nurturing educational program would be a real blow to our community.”