HANALEI — Lisa McDonald, Hanalei Elementary School principal, stood outside of the school Thursday morning, shoulder-to-shoulder with Superintendent Bill Arakaki, watching protesters line the entrance to the parking lot.
Around 65 people were holding signs that said things like “new leader now,” “Lisa must go,” and “we need answers” for an hour as kids were arriving for the school day.
The protesters were part of a group of teachers, parents and community members unhappy with the decisions and leadership style of McDonald.
They’ve held two community meetings, one on Monday and a second on Wednesday, to discuss the matter. More than 50 people attended each of the meetings.
“It’s horrifying (to see them out there),” McDonald said. “I knew there were concerns, but I thought that we were working them out and on a good path.”
McDonald is in her second year as principal of the school and has drawn criticism almost from day one for decisions she has made. Protesters said the bottom line is that they think McDonald isn’t qualified to be the principal and they cite a list of alleged mismanagements and lack of communication instances they say proves it.
“Our intention is for her to step down on her own, or for the superintendents to do their job and remove her from the school,” said Katherine Wilson, current vice president of the parent teacher student association. “Our children have a right to a good education and leadership and it’s not happening.”
The group alleges that they’ve been contacting Arakaki via phone and written letters for over a year, informing him of the problem and asking him to help, with no response.
“Last year we sent over 30 written letters to Mr. Arakaki and he never responded to one of them,” said Missy Hedstrom, mother of two children in the school. “Nobody is listening to us and it’s frustrating for our community.”
Arakaki, however, said he’s working toward an educated decision.
“I am continuing to gather information from teachers, parents and community members regarding their concerns,” Arakaki said in a statement to The Garden Island. “I must be thorough when it involves employee matters before making a final decision.”
The main concern in the first year of McDonald’s time as principal was her communication style, which was described by some as disrepectful.
The group also alleges that McDonald uses “inappropriate disciplinary tactics” and “only punitive measures of management.”
“She doesn’t listen to her staff,” Hedstrom said. “You’re supposed to lead people, not be a dictator.”
An example of the communcation breakdown at the school, and one of the points of contention, is the creation of this year’s kindergarten and first grade combination class.
“There were some concerns expressed last school year, which we worked to resolve,” McDonald said. “Unfortunately, my recent decision to create a K/1 combination class has triggered some of the previous feelings to resurface.”
The issue stems from a decision last year to hire a curriculum coordinator, which was discussed in a faculty meeting. In that meeting, some say McDonald agreed to terminate the curriculum coordinator position and hire a third kindergarten teacher if the class sizes got too big.
There is no record of what was actually said at that faculty meeting and McDonald says she did not agree to terminate the position.
She said that hiring a curriculum coordinator was supported by a mentor from the New Principal Academy, as well as Arakaki.
“One of the issues is that we weren’t taking minutes at the faculty meetings,” McDonald said. “We’re taking minutes now, so at least that’ll be taken care of.”
At the beginning of the current school year, the kindergarten class swelled in size, pushing the enrollment number to 45 — which is 14 more kindergarten students than the projected number, according to McDonald.
She said she created the combo class to accommodate the influx of students because the school doesn’t have the funds or the space for an additional kindergarten class.
“The kindergartners that were put into that class were hand selected and ready for that,” McDonald said.
The teacher, Sarah Purcell, however, wasn’t ready for it. She turned in her resignation on Tuesday.
“She didn’t want to teach that, “ McDonald said, “so now we’ll have to find somebody that wants to teach that class.”
Protesters allege that Purcell wasn’t receiving proper support and instructional materials. They also say she wasn’t given enough time to set up her classroom.
“Nothing about it was a wise decision and it wasn’t something I felt I could do,” Purcell said. “I didn’t have the resources, I didn’t have the time and I didn’t think I could serve all the children. If I can’t teach responsibly, I choose not to teach.”
Another of the group’s claims has to do with 504 plans. Those outline ways to address specific challenges that kids face within the special education department.
Wilson and Hedstrom claim that last year there were students in the special education department with 504 plans who didn’t receive services. Schools can’t provide a lot of information on the topic because of confidentiality rules.
“This is a federally mandated civil rights violation,” Hedstrom said. “Six weeks into school this year, and they are yet to receive services due to a lack of the principal’s scheduling.”
Protesters said they want to get answers and motivate those in control to act.
“They might be listening, but they’re not doing anything,” Hedstrom said.
Arakaki said his goal is to resolve the problem quickly.
“I understand the urgency in resolving the situation,” Arakaki said in his press statement. “I ask for everyone’s continued patience and understanding as a resolution is decided in the best interest of all students at Hanalei Elementary School and stakeholders involved.”
McDonald said she’s still willing to work with parents and staff members and wants to bring the issue to a peaceful resolution.
“I’m open to conversations and people can drop by any time,” McDonald said.