Schools chief resigns
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Staff Writer
State schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto, who has been frustrated by state budget cuts and protracted negotiations with the Lingle administration and the Hawaii State Teachers Association over teacher furloughs, has resigned.
Hamamoto, who has 10 months left on her four-year contract, informed the state Board of Education in a letter Monday that she would resign effective yesterday.
Hamamoto, a former McKinley High School principal who has been superintendent since late 2001, told the board in her letter that she was leaving the state Department of Education in the hands of a capable administrative team she has put into place.
Deputy superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi becomes acting superintendent.
"This decision was not an easy one to make on my part," Hamamoto wrote, according to a source who had seen the letter. "I appreciate the opportunities for professional and personal development that the board has provided me over the years."
Hamamoto could not be reached for comment. She did not give the board a specific reason for stepping down, but sources believe her exit plan was based on the length of time she has been on the job, her long hours, and the fact that she was satisfied with the management team in place to take over.
The statewide school board did not plan a formal statement until after the New Year's holiday weekend, but word of her resignation quickly spread among educators and the news media last night.
"The board extends its deepest appreciation for all of her many years serving Hawai'i's students and for her dedication to public education, both as an educator and administrator," Garrett Toguchi, the school board chairman, said in a statement. "Superintendent Hamamoto has worked tirelessly to ensure we had a viable plan to reduce the number of furloughs at our public schools.
"She has also volunteered to continue being part of the department's negotiating team to assist in reaching a resolution to bring students back to the classroom. We thank her and wish her well."
Karen Knudsen, a veteran school board member, said Hamamoto has led the department for nearly a decade and probably felt that now is the right time to step away.
Knudsen also said she doubted the timing is directly related to budget cuts and the teacher furlough debate, but acknowledged that it has been a difficult few years for public schools.
"So while it's been frustrating, she's a tough lady. She has experienced tough situations before," she said. "I just think she was feeling that now was the time to step aside and move on."
Lei Ahu Isa, a school board member, said she was not surprised, given recent events. "She's taken the brunt of it," she said of the furlough situation. "Every turn. Everything. The parents.
"We've got e-mails you couldn't believe. She just takes the blame for everybody."
Both Knudsen and Ahu Isa said they believe Hamamoto thought a recent agreement between the school board and the teachers union to reduce some of the remaining furlough days this school year would end the stalemate.
Gov. Linda Lingle at first rejected the deal, but is now reviewing the details.
In September, when a new two-year contract with teachers was reached, Hamamoto and the teachers union explained that 17 furlough days a year for most teachers was preferable to teacher layoffs or further cuts to school programs.
But parent and public backlash — and a reversal by Lingle, who had signed off on the contract — has led to three months of anguish and negotiations over how to reduce furlough days.
Of course, Hamamoto was the focus of frustration about Hawai'i public schools even before the furlough controversy.
State Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimānalo, Hawai'i Kai), has been a frequent critic of the department because he does not think the roughly $2 billion in state spending on education has produced results.
"I'm sure that Pat Hamamoto did the best she could. But at the end of the day, we all get judged by results," he said. "Superintendent Hamamoto failed to yield to the governor's and our collective efforts to reform the expensive and inefficient DOE."
State Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), the chairman of the Senate Education and Housing Committee, described Hamamoto as a good manager and decision-maker.
"I think, under the circumstances, she did a good job," he said.
State Rep. Lyla Berg, D-18th (Kuli'ou'ou, Niu Valley, 'Āina Haina), the vice chair of the House Education Committee, has known Hamamoto for years and went through principal training with the superintendent.
"I've respected her love for children and really her dedication to public education," she said.
But Berg said the search for a new superintendent could be the catalyst for change at public schools.
"At this point, when we can see that the whole educational system is apparently failing our children and failing the process of making sure education reaches all children, that it really opens up the opportunity for us to make some significant changes," she said.