Charter schools get pass on sunshine law


The Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science Governing Board frustrated some parents last week when it relocated a closed-door meeting with a teacher accused of abusing students without announcing the new location.

But did it break the law?

Likely not, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

While the state’s sunshine law requires public boards to announce the location of their meetings, lawmakers have granted public charter schools, like HAAS, an exemption from the law.

The state only requires the schools post meeting notices and agendas six days prior to the meeting. Meeting minutes must be made available within 30 days.

Outside the sunshine law, there are also no guidelines as to what information meeting notices need to contain, making it unclear if public charter schools are required to announce a location at all.

“The statute is silent on what it means,” said Anne Lopez, special assistant to the Attorney General, regarding the meeting notice requirement.

Additionally, the board for the Pahoa school may have gone above and beyond its requirements by posting a meeting notice, even if it didn’t say where members were gathering.

Lopez said that for public charter schools, the requirement that a notice be posted applies to open meetings, and not executive sessions, as was held at the May 13 meeting.

Executive sessions are closed to the public to allow boards to discuss personnel matters and related issues. With boards governed by the sunshine law, the meeting location must still be posted and actions generally can’t be taken in private.

“Our position is that (the rules) only provide requirements for notices and agendas for public meetings,” Lopez said, referring to public charter schools.

“And there are no statutory requirements for non-public meetings.”

The HAAS board held the meeting in executive session to discuss an allegation that the teacher, Shannon K. Smith, violated a separation agreement with the school by attending a school function. Parents have accused her of hitting and verbally abusing students.

She was placed on administrative leave in January.

But the meeting, re-located due to concerns for her safety, was disrupted when Smith left before the board could address the issue.

Hirakami said she felt unsafe after parents, who discovered the meeting was held at HAAS’ “InDigital” building, began arriving. It’s unclear if threats were made against her.

If the Attorney General’s Office’s analysis holds true, then HAAS could continue the executive session without the parents’ or general public’s knowledge.

While not speaking for the whole board, Steve Hirakami, HAAS school director, suggested Monday that might be his preference due to concerns parents might disrupt the meeting or make the teacher feel unsafe.

“I’m not going to reveal anything about the potential date, time, whatever,” he said.

“We will release a statement following the meeting.”

Hirakami said he has also been consulting the Attorney General’s Office on the matter. Lopez said she couldn’t comment on that due to attorney-client privilege.

The state Public Charter School Commission will look at the issue after it received complaints from parents last week, said Executive Director Tom Hutton.

He also acknowledged that the schools are not provided guidelines for what meeting notices need to contain but was unsure whether executive sessions can occur without an announcement.

“That would be my assumption,” Hutton said. “I haven’t had the legal analysis that the school is indicating it got from its deputy (attorney general).

“We would certainly take that (analysis) under consideration.”

In its review, Hutton said the commission can only look at whether HAAS violated its contract with the organization.

Staff writer Colin M. Stewart contributed to this report.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.