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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Legislators subpoena Felix decree monitors

 •  Special-ed student gains court victory

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

Invoking a sparsely used subpoena power, state legislators yesterday called two agents of the federal court to testify in an investigation into the soaring costs of the Felix consent decree.

Ivor Groves, the court-appointed monitor who has warned that this type of legislative scrutiny of the decree could interfere with the state's efforts to improve special education services, and Juanita Iwamoto, executive director of the Felix monitoring project, were called to testify before a special investigative committee at 9 a.m. July 13.

A list of others who will be subpoenaed for future meetings should be ready on or before that date, said Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, co-chairwoman of the investigative committee. Legislators must give at least 10 days' notice of a subpoena.

Hanabusa said legislators are unclear about how the money is being spent and whether it is reaching the students it is meant to help.

"This is the only way we can get a straight answer," Hanabusa said. "Sometimes they are not always forthcoming or completely candid," she said of some of those who have testified before legislators. "The subpoena should make them candid."

The rare joint Senate-House investigation was authorized this session because of increasing concerns about the amount of money being funneled to special education at public schools. Hawai'i's spending on special education has increased about 500 percent since 1992. The price tag for the next two years is more than $700 million.

A final report on the investigation will likely be ready sometime in November, said Hanabusa, D-21st (Kalaeloa, Makaha).

Although legislators have grilled state education and health officials about spending for the decree, Groves and Iwamoto have never spoken to the Legislature about the state's compliance effort.

Groves oversees the state's progress in the Felix case and has recommended that U.S. District Judge David Ezra order the state to pay the cost of improving services or face fines. Groves has also suggested that the state Departments of Education and Health should be free to devote their full attention to the consent decree, "rather than spending time justifying past actions" to the investigative committee.

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 lawsuit was filed by parents of disabled children in Hawai'i, including a girl named Jennifer Felix. The state agreed to improve services by signing the consent decree in 1994.

Ezra already has found the state in contempt of court for missing one deadline. Plaintiff attorneys in the case now are asking the court to appoint a receiver to take over the system to complete the job.

State Rep. Scott Saiki , D-20th (Kapahulu, Mo'ili'ili) said the committee wants to know why $1 billion has been spent and the state still has not reached full compliance. "We've had difficulty in getting financial information," Saiki said.

A report issued in January by the state auditor prompted the legislative investigation. While the authors found improvement in special education services, they also were highly critical of several areas, including inconsistent cost reporting and a lack of independent oversight. The lack of a clear definition for which children are eligible for help under the Felix consent decree is opening the floodgates for services and driving up costs, the report said.

Among those expected to be subpoenaed are officials from the Department of Education and Department of Health.

More than 60 percent of Hawai'i's schools have come into full or provisional compliance with the Felix consent decree in the last 16 months, said state schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu. "We of course feel we have been very forthcoming," he said. "We're proud of what's been accomplished."

If legislators would provide sufficient money, the rest of the state's schools could come into compliance, LeMahieu said.