KAILUA-KONA — The state commission for public charter schools has yet to make a decision on allegations that a Kona charter school violated its contract by failing to maintain accurate enrollment data, reportedly netting them more than $300,000 in overpaid funding.
The governing board for Kona Pacific Public Charter School though is disputing that figure and said any discrepancies were the unintentional result of factors such as an inability to officially disenroll students without signed parental consent forms and a lack of clear guidance to charter schools on enrollment requirements.
The school’s board further said the allegations don’t reflect the school’s current procedures, which were put in place in the 2015-16 school year, and that those who were responsible for enrollment errors are no longer employed at the school.
Kona Pacific Public Charter School, located in Kealakekua, is a kindergarten through eighth-grade charter school that received a charter from the State Public Charter School Commission in November 2007, according to documents filed with the commission. Its current charter school contract runs from 2017-2020.
In October 2016, during a previous contract term that started in 2014, the school’s principal at the time reported to the commission about “troubling” alleged practices in regards to the enrollment, withdrawal and transfer of students, according to documents filed with the commission.
Those practices, documents state, are alleged to have inflated the school’s actual enrollment numbers, and improperly increased its per-pupil funding. Commission documents put the potential overpayment amount at more than $300,000.
After its review, the commission said the school wasn’t complying with parts of its contract, issued a “notice of concern” to the school and scheduled a meeting at the beginning of March to discuss taking action on its concerns.
The commission’s communications director said the commission didn’t make any decision at the meeting, held March 8, and said the earliest the commission will take up the issue again will be its April general meeting.
“We are still engaged in the intervention protocol of our charter contract and will continue to communicate with the school’s governing board in the hopes of remedying the concerns listed in the submittal on the school’s enrollment, withdrawal and transfer practices,” said State Public Charter School Commission executive director Sione Thompson.
The commission’s focus is on allegations that the school hadn’t removed students from its enrollment system even when the school knew the student either hadn’t come to school or withdrew from the charter school to home-school, moved to the mainland or transferred to a private school.
For charter schools, their enrollment data in a statewide student information system determines their funding. Under state law, charter schools are funded based on a “per-pupil” figure based on the statute and the official enrollment tally as of Oct. 15 each year.
In a review of the school’s records, commission staff found discrepancies in 35 out of 65 student files which commission documents said suggested Kona Pacific Public Charter School failed to remove students from the enrollment system in a timely manner, “resulting in KPPCS being paid for the student for the school year and in some cases for multiple years,” pegging the figure at more than $300,000.
In its response to the commission the chairman of Kona Pacific Public Charter School governing board said some of the student records identified in the investigation were actually properly enrolled at the school and included in the student count.
Others, the chairman said, withdrew to home-school, but for the first several years, the school was told the associated paperwork was required to be filed with the neighborhood DOE school.
And while he noted that there may be some records that contain errors resulting from a lack of record-keeping procedures, clerical errors, trouble getting signed withdrawal paperwork from parents and challenges with the student information systems, he also noted enrollment data has proven a challenge throughout Hawaii’s schools.
The board referenced a 2013 DOE internal audit that said the department’s enrollment and withdrawal processes were functioning at just a “marginal” level. The report referenced a lack of comprehensive policies and procedures as well as a lack of oversight, monitoring and accountability at the school level, saying “it appears there are no consequences for DOE schools that do not follow proper procedures.”
The audit states that in a sampling of 450 records, the report said, there were 201 instances — about 45 percent — where the student shouldn’t have been included in the official enrollment tally because the student was either a “no-show,” the student’s last day of attendance was before the count day or there was a parent notification that referenced a release day before the count date.
The chairman told the commission that to avoid future errors, the school was adopting specific actions such as requiring staff training, and working with the attorney general to develop an automatic withdrawal procedure for when a student isn’t attending school but the school has trouble getting a withdrawal form from parents.
The commission, for its part, dismissed the school’s argument that it was unable to withdraw a student without a parent’s signature as “untrue and unacceptable.”
In a statement to West Hawaii Today, the school’s governing board said it continues to dispute portions of the allegations and said the school instituted actions to “correct and clarify” its enrollment and withdrawal procedures in the 2015-16 school year.
Now, the board said, it is “in the process of continuing to refine and improve those procedures.”
The valuation of overpaid funds is also a point of dispute between the commission and charter school. The governing board said the commission’s submittal, which was published March 5, was the first time its members had learned of the alleged overpayment figure.
The board said it is awaiting clarification on how that $300,000 figure was determined and said that the school is prepared to take “appropriate corrective action.” The board added it is unaware of any public school being asked to return funds that were distributed because of errors in enrollment data.
The notice of concern sent to the charter school outlining the commission’s allegations does not include an estimate of overpaid funds.
The board further noted there was no opportunity during the commission meeting to discuss in a confidential setting the specific student records the commission referenced in its own investigation “without violating … (student privacy) laws.”