LeMahieu accused of bias in contracts for Felix programs
By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer
A Department of Education employee told legislators yesterday that he believes schools chief Paul LeMahieu tried to hide from scrutiny a contract that he granted under the Felix consent decree.
Testifying before the joint House-Senate Felix investigative committee, former DOE personnel director Al Yoshii said he shared the concerns of other witnesses that a contract was given to Hilo company Na Laukoa despite questions about the company's ability to do the job.
Legislators, who are worried about the rising costs of special education under the Felix decree, have said they are concerned that Na Laukoa may have received preferential treatment from LeMahieu.
After the hearing, LeMahieu told The Advertiser that legislators have only heard one side of the story.
"We can only hope that good-thinking, balanced individuals will not come to conclusions based upon a very limited and highly selected set of testifiers," he said. "There are answers for the questions that have been raised. I hope people don't arrive at conclusions before hearing them."
LeMahieu granted two of the contracts the committee is scrutinizing by using the extraordinary powers granted to him by the federal court. Those "super powers" enable him to bypass certain procurement laws in order to speed up department efforts to improve special-education services as required by the Felix consent decree.
Yoshii yesterday told legislators that he believes LeMahieu has misused those powers. Yoshii has a lawsuit pending against LeMahieu, contending he was transferred because he had criticized the way the state was spending money on Felix programs.
He told the committee that, after one DOE employee opposed a contract with Na Laukoa, he believes LeMahieu attempted to hide the contract by channeling it through a subcontract with another company, Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. The total contract was for $2.3 million, with about $600,000 going to Na Laukoa.
Yoshii suggested paying for the contract with federal money meant that it did not come under the purview of the Legislature.
"This contract was awarded without bid or competition," Yoshii said. "I believe the intent was to disguise this contract from both the Board of Education" and the Legislature.
After the meeting, LeMahieu said federal money was used to avoid spending more state money.
The schools chief has agreed with criticisms that Na Laukoa did not have experience in the area for which it was hired. However, LeMahieu has said the intent of having Na Laukoa work with PREL was to build expertise on the Big Island.
Legislators also quizzed Yoshii on a head-hunting contract with Columbus Educational Corp. another contract granted using LeMahieu's super powers.
"I call it the black hole the financial black hole," Yoshii said.
Columbus is tasked with bringing qualified special education teachers to Hawai'i to help fill the shortage. The contract was initially for more than $100 million, although Columbus is only paid for the teachers that it delivers.
Yoshii said the contract was implemented with too much haste. And because teachers hired by Columbus earn more than DOE recruits, the contract sparked morale problems in schools and created competition for the DOE's own recruiters.
"It was not necessary, in my opinion, to enter into a contract like this at all," Yoshii said.
However, schools Deputy Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said the DOE had no choice because the court ordered it to enter into such a contract after the personnel department which was then headed by Yoshii had failed for years to increase the number of certified teachers as required.
"When we went with Columbus we always knew it was going to be for a limited amount of time," she said. "It was to buy us some time so we could grow our own teachers."
Reach Alice Keesing at email@example.com or 525-8014.