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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 2, 2001

Felix monitor urges limits on Legislature

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer

The Legislature's scrutiny of the Felix consent decree could set back the state's efforts to improve special education services by years, according to a report filed in federal court yesterday.

The squabbles of the past six months in which lawmakers questioned the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on Felix "do not bode well" for efforts to comply with the court order to improve services, said Ivor Groves, the court-appointed monitor who oversees the state's progress in the Felix case.

The Legislature delayed some financing for Felix this session and now is setting up an investigative committee to look into how the departments of Education and Health are spending the money.

But Groves has recommended that U.S. District Judge David Ezra order the departments' Felix budget requests met without reductions or delays and that fines be imposed if they are not. Groves also suggests the departments should be free to devote their full attention to the consent decree, "rather than spending time justifying past actions" to the investigative committee.

On June 22, Ezra will review the state's progress in the Felix case and its request for a six-month extension. He also will consider a motion by the plaintiff attorneys that he appoint a receiver to take over the special education system.

The system is under Ezra's oversight as the result of a 1993 class-action lawsuit that challenged the state's treatment of children with mental disabilities. The state agreed to improve services by signing the consent decree in 1994.

But after six years and millions of dollars, Rep. Scott Saiki said legislators want to be certain of the "integrity" of the process.

"The question that needs to be asked is, given the fact that we have spent over $1 billion on Felix over the past six years, why aren't we in compliance?" said Saiki, D-20th (Kapahulu, Mo'ili'ili).

Members have yet to be assigned to the investigative committee, but research will likely begin in the next month and hearings after the summer, Saiki said.

"The Legislature has the constitutional right to form an investigative committee," he said. "And I think we have an obligation to our taxpayers to look into this matter. We're pretty firm on doing this."

Meanwhile, while the departments of Education and Health have made significant progress, there is no way they will meet the December deadline set by the court, Groves said.

Of 32 school complexes that were supposed to be in compliance this month, eight are in full compliance and 13 are in provisional compliance.

However, Groves identified problems with the leadership at some schools and districts, specifically Ho-nolulu, Central and Windward.

"A number of persons have commented that the administrators now seem more focused on denying services than working constructively to solve a child's problem," he said in his report.

Key leadership also may have to be removed at the state level, he said, "in order to get the necessary attitudes and management skills instilled in all the key locations of the organization."