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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 7, 2010

Schools chief's absence will be felt


By Lee Cataluna

Of all the prominent leaders in our community, it seemed Pat Hamamoto would be the one to ride off into the sunset in a blaze of glory when it was her time. Most people have burn-out or flame-out lingering around them like a prophecy, but Hamamoto had that steady gaze and easy courage of a gun-slinging good guy who would set things right before moving on. It's a surprise her departure didn't turn out like that.

Not that she's slinking away under a cloud. Hamamoto accomplished much during her tenure as superintendent of schools. She took on a lot of problems when she started in 2001 and managed to wrestle some of the big ones down. Reforming special education services and thus successfully taking Hawai'i's public schools out from under federal court oversight was a huge accomplishment that improved the education prospects for thousands of children with special needs.

Hamamoto also gave schools more control over their budgets, worked to reduce class size and dealt with the myriad issues of No Child Left Behind.

Her tenure was not during a golden age of Hawai'i's public schools, but she didn't hide, didn't get thin-skinned, didn't play the blame game. If you challenged her with a question, she gave you a straight, thoughtful answer. Hamamoto was a study in graceful leadership, yet you knew she could scrap if it came to that.

Remember her gangbusters "State of the Schools" speech to the Legislature in 2004? Coming just days after Linda Lingle's State of the State, she blew the governor out of the water.

"Hold me accountable and expect results," Hamamoto said, pointing to her chest. "But first, you must give me the tools and the space to do the job."

Hamamoto has said that she's leaving because it is the right time. It is unfair to second-guess her personal reasons. However, it doesn't seem like it's the right time for the schools. There are huge holes in the schools' budget because of the state's fiscal crisis. The teachers' contract, which had been settled, got unsettled and is still up in the air. Parents are at an all-time level of angry frustration with the quality, and now quantity, of their children's education. The feds are tsk-tsk-ing over Hawai'i's shortest school year in the nation. It's a tough time to lose a strong leader. It's an odd time for a tough leader to walk away.