Hawaii schools chief: Resignation personal
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
Pat Hamamoto said her decision to resign as chief of the Hawai'i school system was not influenced by drawn-out negotiations over teacher furloughs or cuts to the public education budget.
"It's a very personal decision about what I want to do with the next phase of my life," Hamamoto told The Advertiser yesterday during a lunchtime interview.
Hamamoto was not specific about her personal reasons for resigning, but said she plans to pursue volunteering with the public library system as a children's story time reader and as a reader for the blind.
"We're at a place where it is a right time," she said. "I know I've put in place a team that is confident and dedicated, the initiatives are in place. I'm not walking away leaving pukas, or the place in shambles."
Speaking for the first time since her resignation became effective on New Year's Eve, Hamamoto said the challenges facing the school system were not part of her decision to step aside.
"I was here for all the other budget cuts, for Felix, No Child Left Behind," Hamamoto said. "I walked out of court in contempt under Felix. If there was ever a time to quit, that's when you would have quit."
Her departure came just as the public school system is in the throes of unprecedented budget cuts — some $468 million over the next two years — that led to furloughs of schoolteachers and the shortest instructional calendar in the country.
Hamamoto submitted her letter of resignation on Dec. 28, the same day Gov. Linda Lingle rejected a tentative agreement between the DOE and the Hawaii State Teachers Association that would have used $35 million from the state's "rainy day" emergency fund to reduce the remaining furlough Fridays for the current school year.
MUST BE 'APOLITICAL'
While Hamamoto said politics were not part of her decision to resign, she spoke out yesterday against a state constitutional amendment proposed by Lingle to make the DOE superintendent a Cabinet-level position, under the governor's control.
Lingle proposed the amendment on Oct. 23, the first furlough Friday, as an apparent criticism, saying furloughs of teachers showed a need for more accountability in the public school system. Lingle, however, had approved the teachers contract and held the majority of the votes during contract negotiations.
"Politics should not be part of what goes on in the school room," Hamamoto said. "The superintendent has to be able to advocate for what is right for the kids. You have to be apolitical in order to advocate for the children. That should be the first priority of a superintendent. The second priority is ensuring organizational stability. How do you ensure stability if teachers and administrators think they will be jerked around every four or eight years?"
Hamamoto, one of the state's longest serving superintendents, took over the school system in 2001 from Paul LeMahieu after he served only three years before resigning amid questions about his personal ties to a woman whose firm won a special education contract.
She inherited the job just as the state and the rest of the nation were subjected to the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind. She also took over a school system in the midst of federal court oversight of its special education system, known as the Felix Consent Decree, which dominated the education agenda since 1994.
Hamamoto said bringing the school system out of Felix in 2002 was one of her earliest achievements as superintendent.
"We really had to transform the system from a school system to a system that cared," Hamamoto said. "We've won awards for our Comprehensive Student Support System — internationally and nationally. And it wasn't me. Others came up with it; others put it together. We just made sure it happened."
Under the Felix Consent Decree, spending on special education and other special needs programs increased by more than $400 million since 1994, when the state settled a lawsuit by agreeing to the decree.
Today, special education spending makes up some 22 percent of the DOE budget.
Since September, when the new two-year teachers contract was announced — a contract that included 17 furlough days a year — Hamamoto had been on the receiving end of public outcry and criticism from parents, the community and some lawmakers.
Hamamoto stood by the decision, saying the furloughs were seen as preferable to teacher layoffs or further cuts to school programs. She said she felt confident in the tentative agreement with the HSTA, which was announced on Dec. 28. It would have effectively eliminated furlough Fridays for the remainder of the year.
Lingle summarily rejected the plan that day. But following a meeting between Hamamoto, Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi and the governor's aides on Wednesday, Hamamoto said she felt confident the furlough issue would get resolved.
"When we had that final agreement with HSTA, that was like, yes, one more piece was in place," she said. "Then we met with the governor, and they were open. It's all signs that things are falling into place."
Hamamoto also leaves one of her more recent attempts at education reform still up in the air.
In August she said she intended to again seek the authority to replace principals, most teachers and other staffers at public schools that have consistently failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind requirements.
Hamamoto had wanted to push for the authority after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan notified school districts of more than $3.5 billion in Title I School Improvement grants, which should be spent on drastically reorganizing chronically low-performing public schools.
A bill the state Department of Education supported last legislative session that would have granted her the authority to "reconstitute" schools — meaning replacing principals and teachers — failed to gain the support of lawmakers, mainly because of concerns about collective bargaining.
Hamamoto said the bill will be reintroduced along with the rest of DOE's legislative initiatives this year.
"It's still alive," Hamamoto said.
"We know it's the right thing to do, because it's about making sure schools do the right thing for kids. It's still there, and it hasn't gone away."