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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 19, 2001

Embattled LeMahieu quits as schools superintendent

Once-praised tenure ends amid criticism
 •  Previous story: Legislators probe propriety of special-education contract

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer

Beleaguered Hawai'i schools chief Paul LeMahieu offered his resignation last night, and the Board of Education voted unanimously to accept it.

Paul LeMahieu said he was frustrated about not having a chance to present his side of the story in a legislative inquiry into special education funding.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

The dramatic turn of events comes at a critical time for Hawai'i's troubled schools and their 183,000 students, just two weeks before a federal judge is scheduled to decide whether to take over the special-education system.

The state is also part-way through a major reform in student standards and an administrative reorganization.

And it comes after weeks of investigation from a legislative committee, looking at questions of conflicts and overspending in special education. The committee's questions had focused in large part on an alleged intimate relationship between LeMahieu, who is married, and a woman to whose company he granted a contract.

The circumstances surrounding last night's events are confused. LeMahieu told The Advertiser that he offered his resignation, but that he was willing to stay if the board voted to support him. However, board chairman Herb Watanabe said LeMahieu resigned "of his own accord."

LeMahieu's contract was not up until August 2002, but he said he offered to resign because he heard that board members had gone to the governor to discuss the matter. One board member confirmed that four members visited the governor this week to air their concerns.

LeMahieu's successor
Name: Patricia Hamamoto.
Position: Acting superintendent of schools, appointed yesterday.
Previous job: Deputy superintendent, appointed by Paul LeMahieu in February 1999. Before that, she was principal of McKinley High School.
 •  Education: Bachelor's degree from California State University, Long Beach, and at the time of her appointment as deputy superintendent she was doing graduate coursework at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. She is a graduate of Maryknoll High School.
Even as LeMahieu was announcing to the media his offer to resign, the board called in his deputy, Pat Hamamoto, and voted to appoint her acting superintendent, effective immediately.

As a clearly shaken LeMahieu announced his plans last night, he said a large part of his decision stemmed from the Legislature's investigation, which he said has made it impossible for him to do his job. While saying he bore no rancor, he expressed frustration that he has not been given the opportunity to present his side of the story in the inquiry.

"What ought to have been, at most, a sideshow has taken center stage," he told The Advertiser before he entered the closed meeting with the board to discuss his position. "It has become a distraction, and I will not persist in staying in office for its own sake if I can't be effective and I'm just a distraction. The system deserves more, and it deserves better."

Rep. Scott Saiki, who co-chairs the investigative committee, called LeMahieu's resignation "unfortunate."

"The investigative committee just did its job, and we're looking at the facts, and we're trying to verify allegations," he said.

LeMahieu's relationship with the Board of Education has been rocky at times. He began in September 1998 and soon won glowing reviews for his work with the Legislature and community, as well as his efforts to reform the system. But it became apparent last year that his honeymoon was over. Board members have accused him of poor communication and have tried to rein in his authority.

Yet just three months ago, they gave him a "more than satisfactory" rating in his annual evaluation.

Karen Knudsen, Board second vice chairwoman, explained last night's turnaround as a result of the superintendent's offer to resign, rather than a change in the board's attitude.

Many greeted the news of LeMahieu's departure with dismay.

Special court master Jeffrey Portnoy said LeMahieu's departure has the potential to be a significant impediment to the state's efforts to reach the November deadline set under the Felix consent decree.

"It will be the responsibility of the state and the people that caused his resignation to understand the court is not going to permit it to have any impact on the court decree," he said.

Gov. Ben Cayetano said LeMahieu called him before last night's meeting to inform him of his plans. Last month, Cayetano and LeMahieu clashed over estimates of Hawai'i's teachers shortage. Cayetano suggested that LeMahieu "look for another job" after he suggested he might ask a federal judge to intervene to help implement the then-stalled teachers' contract.

LeMahieu spoke with Board of Education member Keith Sakata, right, yesterday outside the meeting room.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Cayetano yesterday said he did not try to persuade LeMahieu to stay.

"I think that under the circumstances it was probably the wise thing to do for him (for) his family but also for the schools and the issues that face us in the Department of Education," he said. "I think Dr. LeMahieu showed some grace by saying, 'I'm not going to become a distraction to improving public education in Hawai'i.' So I think it was pretty big of him to come forward and offer his resignation."

Joan Husted, Hawai'i State Teachers Association executive director, said she was not happy with the turn of events.

"The difficulty is that we never seem to be able to get a job finished here," she said. Husted said she has great respect for Hamamoto, but that Hawai'i's constant changes in superintendent could hinder progress in the schools.

Hamamoto, formerly principal of McKinley High, has spearheaded the department's efforts to improve special education services to comply with the Felix consent decree. Board members last night praised her performance and said she will offer continuity.

Hamamoto said she accepted the position with mixed feelings, mostly a sense of loss.

"The man has done good for this system" she said of her former boss. "He has done so much in such a short time and we will be continuing on the path to ensure the seeds he has planted come to fruition. His agenda was sound."

Advertiser staff writers Lynda Arakawa and James Gonser contributed to this report.