Hamamoto achieved key goals during her tenure
There's been a lot of speculation about the reasons for Patricia Hamamoto's sudden departure as state superintendent of education, but I'll just wish her a happy retirement from perhaps Hawai'i's toughest job.
Hamamoto is 65 and the school system is going to be in a bailing-water mode for the next few years. It's quite understandable that she sees this as the right time to let younger hands she brought aboard man the buckets while she pursues more pleasant life interests.
Hamamoto wasn't quite the agent of change she hoped to be, but she displayed impressive stamina, common sense, openness and cool under pressure as one of Hawai'i's longest-serving superintendents during some of our most tumultuous times.
She ascended to the job after her predecessor, Paul LeMahieu, resigned in a messy scandal over his personal relationship with a woman who had a special education contract with the Department of Education.
Hamamoto took the reins not long after the bitter teachers' strike and at a time when the DOE faced the serious threat of a federal court takeover for failing to comply with the Felix consent decree on special education.
If that wasn't enough, public schools nationwide were just beginning to face up to the demands of the No Child Left Behind law pushed by the Bush administration.
At the time, I described Hamamoto as a "competent caretaker" who "may be just what is needed to get the schools back on even keel and ready for the next charge forward."
Like a veteran teacher facing a classful of unruly kids, she did quickly restore order, but Hamamoto turned out to be no caretaker, serving eight years in which she dug the DOE out from under Felix and introduced management efficiencies that better positioned the schools to deal with No Child Left Behind.
However, Hamamoto was unable to bring transformational reform to an underachieving system that has long been held back by a dense centralized bureaucracy, too many fingers in the pie, lack of accountability, a cover-your-butt mentality and an entrenched culture of taking care of the adults who feed off the system ahead of the children it serves.
She was handicapped by a woefully ineffective Board of Education that was often frozen in indecision at critical times, an antagonistic relationship with the governor and legislators who piled demands on the DOE but wouldn't give her even the most basic powers such as the ability to remove principals and teachers from the worst performing schools.
In the end, the unprecedented budget crisis that marked her final year brought out the worst of the public school establishment and is causing damage that will take years to undo.
It's regrettable that Hamamoto, who was the one player who tried to keep focus on managing the downside, leaves taking so much of the blame for the teacher furlough fiasco in which many others shared responsibility.
Perhaps Hamamoto's greatest mistake was in 2004 when she went political and allowed Democratic legislators to use her as their main prop in fighting school reforms proposed by the new Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.
Two talented women who might have been collaborators under different circumstances were cast as adversaries, and the years of mistrust and turf warfare that followed precluded any chance of lasting reform in our schools.
Hamamoto, who spent a quarter-century moving up the ranks in the DOE before assuming the top job, truly believed she could reform the system from within.
The fact that she couldn't, despite her leadership gifts and intimate knowledge of the schools from many perspectives, should be the final sign that our dysfunctional school system is beyond being fixed by internal tweaks and needs to be blown apart and reconstituted.