Wednesday, January 31, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Schools chief told: We talk, you listen

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer

Hundreds of principals laid out their concerns and frustrations to public schools chief Paul LeMahieu in an unprecedented meeting this month at which he was asked not to speak but to listen.

Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said he is unhappy at being "left hanging."

Advertiser library photo • Oct. 19, 2000

In presenting their complaints, the principals told LeMahieu:

There is not enough communication between his administration and the schools.

Too many conflicting messages are reaching the schools.

The superintendent and his leadership team should attend more principals’ meetings to get feedback.

Principals lack enough resources to do the job they are being asked to do.

Work conditions must improve if the impending principal shortage is to be curtailed.

More than 300 administrators — principals, vice principals and district and state staff people — from every inhabited island converged on Moanalua High School on Jan. 19. Out of frustration, principals said, they had been organizing the meeting for three months in an attempt to get LeMahieu to focus on problems they deal with daily.

The principals did not allow LeMahieu to speak, but he responded last week with a memo to each of them. In that memo, obtained by The Advertiser, LeMahieu said he wanted "to acknowledge the seriousness of the message presented at the meeting and the importance for us to move forward in a positive and constructive manner."

Board of Education Second Vice Chairwoman Karen Knudsen said she and others have been aware of a growing tension between the principals and LeMahieu, who has been on the job for nearly 2 1/2 years.

"Some of us have been very concerned about it, but it’s been a difficult time because there’s a lot of new things going on," she said.

Hawaii’s principals are shouldering extra work resulting from sweeping changes intended to improve student performance and comply with a federal court order to improve education of the mentally disabled. They speak of fewer resources, longer hours and professional burnout.

However, organizers of the principals’ meeting said, the intent was not to blame LeMahieu or point fingers.

"It was not a negative meeting" said Leilehua High principal Norman Minehira. "We believe it was very optimistic, very positive. I believe our statement was we want to be allies, we want to be part of the solution."

Minehira said LeMahieu showed courage in facing the large gathering.

"I think his initiatives are great," said Baldwin High principal Wally Fujii, who has worked in the Department of Education for 42 years. "We support what he’s trying to do; we just need to have better communication and resources to make sure it happens."

LeMahieu, too, said the tone of the meeting was positive. However, in his written response, he expressed concern that he was not permitted to speak and was "left hanging to watch the event unfold."

"I must confess I had hopes for a different kind of event," he wrote.

Minehira said LeMahieu was not given time to speak because the meeting was run on a tight agenda so principals from the Neighbor Islands could return home.

Despite that disagreement, LeMahieu said, he did not detect contention from the principals’ ranks.

"I detect all of the frustrations that are rooted in (the changing system)," he said. "People are shouldering a lot and not feeling much reward or appreciation for it, and that’s an explosive mix."

LeMahieu said he will redouble his efforts and inform all principals by Feb. 15 how the department plans to address their concerns.

"We need to show folks there are actions and measures under way that address the very concerns they raised, and then get their support for that," he said. For example, the department is requesting money from the Legislature for business managers and clerks to help principals with their growing workload.

But, LeMahieu said, "we’ve got to do it together." And he called on principals not to lobby the Legislature this session for their individual school needs.

Minehira said he’s hopeful in the wake of the meeting.

"We’re optimistic, and we’re really anxiously awaiting the superintendent’s response on Feb. 15," he said.

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