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OPINION: School Bus Snafu Principal Guilty of Common Sense

August 9, 2013, 11:08 AM HST
* Updated August 9, 2:41 PM
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Hearing date: 08/09/2013
Presiding Judge: the Honorable Wei-Long Rant
Case: The Department of Education vs. Steve Hirakami vs. the Media

 

All rise, for the court of public opinion is now in session.

For those of you kind enough to join us today, you’ll be happy to know that we’re ditching the customary format of lengthy arguments, cross-examinations and deliberations.

In the interest of expediency, we’ll just read out our verdict in advance:

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We find, by virtue of the evidence, Principal Steve Hirakami of the Hawai`i Academy of Arts and Sciences guilty of “Common Sense in the First Degree.”

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Further, we find members of the Hawai`i Department of Education guilty of “Bureaucratic Bungling in the Second Degree.”

Lastly, we find the media of the state of Hawai`i guilty of “Lazy Journalism in the First Degree.”

OK, cool. Time for lunch!

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If only it were that simple…

Anatomy of a Snafu

For those not aware, a media frenzy of sorts ensued after the Board of Education canceled bus service for around 60 children attending HAAS Charter School in Pahoa last week.

With spectacularly awful timing, the DOE directly informed the school its students would not be provided curbside service just a few days before the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

This led HAAS Principal Steve Hirakami to call an impromptu meeting of parents and stakeholders on Aug. 4 to figure out a temporary solution for their transportation needs.

The meeting did produce some creative workarounds, but also produced some angry reactions from parents toward the DOE (including threats of lawsuits), some of which was captured on camera and later broadcast on Youtube.

Queue media feeding frenzy.

What newspapers and websites really sank their teeth into was the perceived notion that the DOE had ridden into town (by email) without warning and stripped charter school kids of their transportation rights.

Some charter school parents have long viewed the DOE with a mixture of suspicion and contempt, feelings common enough in the public at large that media outlets couldn’t resist reporting a DOE vs. Charter Parents showdown.

By instantly buying into the crisis whole-hog, several media outlets failed (and some still fail) to report that in fact, the DOE had actually warned HAAS that their bus service may be in trouble as early as June 19.

In a conversation with Big Island Now on Aug. 7, HAAS Principal Steve Hirakami described getting a June 19 memo from the DOE that stated “students who attend schools of choice are ineligible for curb-to-curb service.”

Fact-checking can be useful. Who knew?

Uncommon Sense

Hirakami, as far was we can tell, is a man primarily guilty of finding an exceedingly common-sense solution to his student’s transportation woes. Unfortunately, he seems to have done that without first bowing to the appropriate bureaucrats.

Back in 2003, Hirakami worked out an arrangement with the principal of Pahoa High School to have HAAS students and Pahoa High students ride the same bus.

That bus had previously been mostly empty, and Hirakami got HAAS parents to agree to pay into the system by having kids furnish full-priced bus fares.

This presumably was a win-win for HAAS and the DOE, since the latter was essentially throwing money down the drain paying for a mostly-empty vehicle driving around Pahoa.

Hirakami says that he received approval at the time from then-Acting Assistant Superintendent for Facilities and School Support Services Randy Moore. Apart from carrying an impressively long title, Moore also seems to have recognized the value of Hirakami’s proposition.

An agreement was reached, but there was a fatal flaw here: no official paperwork was drafted. In the eyes of the DOE, that is akin to practicing witch-craft.

“This Should Be About the Kids”

The agreement worked well enough for the better part of a decade, with HAAS students eventually paying double the going rate to ride the school bus.

Hirakami isn’t sure exactly when the DOE first got worked up over the situation, simply speculating “I guess they found out about this arrangement… then the whole thing was over.”

The HAAS principal admits that he’d known the DOE’s formal policy on bus service long before their initial June 19 memo, but says he was still caught off-guard by the cancellation of service in August, since the June 19 memo makes exceptions for special-needs students, of which HAAS has 9.

The DOE has since agreed to provide curb-to-curb service for those nine children, but not the other 51. Which leaves HAAS in an odd position. Hirakami describes situations where “some families have one special needs kid and one non-special needs kid… and only one of them can ride the bus.”

Hirakami says that it may now be up to the Board of Education to re-write their administrative rules so that all 60 HAAS students will be able to once again get curb-to-curb service.

In his conversation with Big Island Now, the HAAS principal disapproved of the media’s portrayal of him, stating clearly “I’m not a DOE-hater. I’m responsible for the kids and their families here, and being combative would hurt them.”

Hirakami went on to say “this wasn’t purposefully hateful on the DOE’s part, this was just bad communication and policy. In the end, this should be about serving the kids.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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