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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 1, 2002

Panel renews special-ed inquiry

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

Legislators have renewed their investigation into the spiraling cost of special education, opening what promises to be a return to some of the state's unresolved issues in complying with the federally imposed Felix consent decree.

Those issues include the subpoena of a former federal court employee, the attorney general's ongoing criminal investigation and concerns raised by parents of autistic children.

At the special legislative investigative committee's first meeting of the year this week, lawmakers announced that they expect to question Judith Schrag, a former federal court appointee, by the end of June.

Legislators met in closed session with their attorney, who is in negotiations with the federal court and attorneys for Schrag.

Although a federal judge once quashed the committee's subpoena of Schrag, legislators now believe they will be able to question her under oath about the history of the Felix consent decree.

They want to ask Schrag about her work on a technical assistance panel that helped determine how the state would reach compliance with the federal decree and what benchmarks must be attained.

They also want to ask her about a contract with Columbus Educational Corp., which was hired to attract Mainland teachers to Hawai'i with offers worth as much as $112,000 to help fill the shortage of special-education teachers. Schrag recommended the company.

Rep. Mark Takai, committee co-chairman, said legislators aren't yet sure whether the federal court will restrict the scope of the questions placed before Schrag or require questions to be submitted beforehand.

Hawai'i's school system has been under the federal court's oversight since the state signed the Felix consent decree in 1994, agreeing to improve special-education services, as required by law.

The state has spent more than $1 billion on Felix efforts and has not yet reached compliance, although federal court officials have indicated for months that the state is likely to be found substantially in compliance in June.

The cost of Felix has prompted legislators to raise questions about whether taxpayer dollars are reaching special-needs students.

A committee report issued in December led to an investigation by the attorney general's office. On May 15, a grand jury issued a 10-count indictment against a therapeutic aide accused of medical assistance fraud. The indictment accuses the woman of billing the state for $1,800 in services that were not provided.

Officials called that indictment the "tip of the iceberg."

Attorney General Earl Anzai said this week that 40 people have come forward since that indictment to provide detailed information about instances of what they believe could be billing fraud.

"Hopefully we'll see more indictments in the short term," Takai said.

Takai and Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, the committee co-chairwoman, said it appears that more indictments are likely. But the attorney general's staff still must look at a great number of documents, Hanabusa said.

Hanabusa said the committee is still drawing up a subpoena list for its work this summer and fall. It also expects to look into billing procedures at the Department of Health,

The committee also expects an updated report in late June from state Auditor Marion Higa. In a December report, Higa found that the state lacked a coordinated financial management system and that the monitoring of student improvement was faulty.

Legislators are also trying to respond to the concerns of parents who have complained about the transfer of services for their autistic children this summer, when the Department of Education will take charge of what has been the Health Department's responsibility.

State Sen. Norman Sakamoto and Rep. Ken Ito will organize a meeting in mid-June to ask DOE officials to explain how the transition will work.

About 550 autistic children will start receiving services from the DOE starting July 1. But parents have raised questions about changes in the level of care and what the DOE will do to replace some behavioral health specialists who are planning to leave Hawai'i.

Also, a contract awarded by the DOE to the Alaka'i Na Keiki agency is being protested under the department's administrative rules. Parents have argued that one agency cannot meet the needs of all O'ahu children.

About 150 parents and care providers have signed on to a letter to Superintendent Pat Hamamoto that outlines the concerns. It is being circulated among the entire Legislature.

Chris Butt, manager of the school-based behavioral health contract section, said the contract is not binding until it is executed. The DOE is getting in touch with the 20 service provider agencies who now work with the Health Department to see if they will extend their contract to work with the DOE after July 1 if the contract issue is not settled by then.

Bob Campbell, director of the office of program support and development, said similar concerns were raised last year when the state changed many special-education students to school-based services instead of Health Department services. That transition turned out to be easier than some people expected, he said.

"Autism cases are profoundly more challenging," Campbell said. "The impact, generally speaking, we anticipate to be more troublesome."

But Campbell said there will be no interruption of services to children during the transition. And the agencies will work with families to smooth the way if students have to switch to a new therapist or therapeutic aide.

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