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

Once-praised tenure ends amid criticism

 •  Embattled LeMahieu quits as schools superintendent

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

He arrived in 1998: a nationally known education researcher and consultant who was comfortable in an aloha shirt.

Paul LeMahieu spoke with reporters about his resignation as state schools superintendent last night. "I will not persist in staying in office for its own sake if I'm ineffective," he said.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Paul LeMahieu's knowledge of the Hawai'i school system impressed; his emphasis on accountability and reform won praise as a way to save Hawai'i's struggling school system.

But his career as an educational coach and adviser had left him untested by the fire often directed at school administrators. Three years later, LeMahieu leaves the Department of Education burned.

Under continued scrutiny for his alleged intimate relationship with a woman who owns a company to which he granted a special-education contract, and under pressure from state officials frustrated with the ever-spiraling costs of the Felix consent decree, LeMahieu, who is married, offered his resignation to the Board of Education yesterday.

Although he retained widespread support for his efforts to reform a system that serves 183,000 students, in the end the accusations cut short a tenure that, though promising, started to unravel after his first year on the job.

Hawai'i ties

LeMahieu began his education career in the late 1970s with three years as a social studies teacher at a West Philadelphia high school. He later became a university professor, wrote more than 50 articles, won awards for his research and sat on the boards of several national education associations.

He came to Hawai'i from Delaware, where he was the executive director of an independent, public-private agency that researches what's working and what isn't for the state's 105,000 public school students.

But he had ties to the Islands.

His father served in the U.S. Coast Guard, and LeMahieu grew up in Ka'a'awa before moving to the Mainland. In 1992, LeMahieu started helping teachers, state administrators, University of Hawai'i representatives and local writers develop a writing assessment for the public schools.

When they hired him, board members said they liked LeMahieu's knowledge of the Hawai'i public school system's problems and strengths. He was one of two candidates who wore an aloha shirt to his interview.

LeMahieu won praise his first year on the job.

In March 1999, he released a Comprehensive Needs Assessment report. It was pulled together by more than 3,000 educators, parents and students, and was called the most comprehensive look into Hawai'i's public school system. LeMahieu said it was the necessary first step toward improving Hawai'i's schools.

He later developed performance guidelines, which measure how well students have mastered what they are supposed to know and do, followed by reformed benchmarks to see if those standards are being met.

Just three months ago, the Board of Education gave him a "more than satisfactory" rating.

However, behind the scenes, board members admitted that may not have been an accurate reflection of their feelings. For more than a year, board members had criticized LeMahieu for a lack of communication, and an absence from schools and classrooms.

Locked in power struggle

In the fall of 2000, evidence of a power struggle emerged when the board took back some of the authority it had granted to the superintendent.

Board members also raised questions about LeMahieu's broad authority in the Felix consent decree. A federal judge had granted LeMahieu the power to override certain state laws to help the department improve services for students with mental disabilities.

With that power, the department granted several multimillion-dollar contracts without board oversight. And board members said they could not tell what was legal and what wasn't with the Felix contracts.

The criticism grew. This year, LeMahieu had to deal with the continuing pressure of ramping up special-education services and the stress of the longest teachers strike in state history.

Things started badly in January, when hundreds of principals laid out their concerns and frustrations to LeMahieu in an unprecedented meeting at which he was asked to listen but not speak.

More than 300 administrators said they had been organizing the meeting for months in an attempt to get LeMahieu to focus on problems they deal with daily.

Then the three-week statewide teachers strike in April derailed his new Hawai'i-based test. The test was supposed to be the foundation of efforts to improve the system.

In May the board, concerned about possible conflict of interest, asked him to step down from the board of a company to which he had granted a multimillion-dollar contract.

And some board members also were angered when he offered to pay for a teachers' bonus using the department's own money.

Less than average pay

LeMahieu's $90,041 salary didn't budge during his tenure. When the board hired him in 1998, his salary was $50,000 less than the average for superintendents of comparable districts. The Legislature gave the board the power to raise the superintendent's salary to as much as $150,000, but LeMahieu pledged not to accept a raise until the teachers had a contract.

The board held him to that promise; long after the strike was settled and the teachers contract was signed, LeMahieu still had no pay raise.

Last summer, state Auditor Marion Higa told a legislative investigative committee that a "culture of profit" had developed around Hawai'i's efforts to improve special-education services.

Higa was the first witness called by the joint House-Senate committee that is seeking to find out why the state still is not in compliance with the federal court-ordered Felix consent decree after spending an estimated $1 billion.

It was the same legislative committee that looked into LeMahieu's relationship with the owner of Na Laukoa, a Hilo-based company given a $612,000 share of a Felix contract. LeMahieu said he and Kaniu Kinimaka-Stocksdale are friends, but the friendship developed after the contract had been granted.

Reach Jennifer Hiller at jhiller@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.