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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, October 23, 2001

School board must now answer to public

The state Board of Education has a huge challenge before it now that Superintendent Paul LeMahieu has resigned. The question is — based on the board's performance so far — whether it is up to the challenge.

LeMahieu certainly did his part in paving the way for his departure. He had alienated some members of the board and then gave all his critics a free shot with his admission that he had a personal friendship with a woman to whom he had granted a substantial sole-source contract.

But the ball is now firmly in the board's court as it begins the difficult task of finding a successor to LeMahieu, who blazed into the post on a tide of very high expectations.

The interim superintendent, Pat Hamamoto, is more than competent and has already said she intends to follow through on the agenda set by LeMahieu. That offers the hope of some continuity in a school system that has received more than its share of confidence-blasting blows.

But it is an open question whether Hamamoto would want the job on a permanent basis. In fact, from some perspectives, it is hard to imagine how anyone would want this thankless task.

That's why the task facing the school board is so vitally important. When LeMahieu came to Hawai'i, it was with an ambitious agenda of school reform that clearly would take a good deal of time (and money) to put into place. It was clear from the beginning that he would not succeed if he was constantly second-guessed or undermined from within.

There was initial strong support for LeMahieu and his ideas. But quickly, departmental politics and board interference got in his way.

And then there were the mixed signals being sent to the public, if not to LeMahieu himself. Board evaluations were uniformly positive, including a "more than satisfactory" rating just a few months ago. But clearly, that didn't represent the true thinking of the board. How else to explain the swiftness with which it unanimously accepted his resignation? Clearly, at least as far as the public record is concerned, they let LeMahieu down.

Board member Karen Knudsen made an important point when she noted that the reform agenda pursued by LeMahieu was not his — it was the board's. So as the search for a new permanent superintendent moves forward, it is imperative that the board state in clear and concrete terms what its education agenda is and how it expects to proceed. With that must come an iron-clad guarantee that if someone hires on with promises to pursue that agenda, he or she must be allowed to do so without unnecessary backdoor interference.

The salary level for the next superintendent must be raised to the maximum without delay. The current $90,0000 salary is an embarrassment.

Finally, the board must explain to the public just why it was so willing to let LeMahieu go. What part of his administrative style or educational program was it unhappy with? What, precisely, was it looking for and in what ways did the LeMahieu administration fail to provide it?

Without answers to such questions, the search for a new superintendent will be all but impossible. And if that happens, hope for forward progress in our public school system will be lost.