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Richar Borreca

On Politics

By Richard Borreca

Sunday, November 25, 2001


Education red tape
brought into light

First came the students needing help and not getting it from a bumbling, numb bureaucracy.

Then came a federal judge to order results.

But no one was capable of ordering a bureaucracy to perform.

For almost a decade, the struggle to force the state to comply with federal requirements for equal public education, the Felix consent decree, has been fueled by worried parents with a just cause.

The state Department of Education so poorly treated special education children and their parents that they were driven to fight the system. They sued in federal court, and they won.

Rather than continue fighting, the state entered into a consent decree with the federal government to start working to help the students.

But the Department of Education is like a huge ship that is almost impossible to turn. Once you budge the rudder and change direction, it will not easily change course again.

The bureaucracy has been told it must start spending money on special education students, the so-called "Felix-class" students. As more money was spent, it became the automatic rule for the Department of Health, Department of Education and even the Department of Human Services.

Two years ago Rep. Calvin Say (D, Palolo) said the only person with enough power to influence the state budget was federal judge David Ezra, who oversaw the consent decree.

One year ago Rep. Dennis Arakaki (D, Kalihi Valley), who, with his years of support for poverty and immigrant programs has become something of a patron saint to social workers, grumbled how social programs had to include a a "Felix component" to get money for their programs.

While other programs were contracting or staying the same, Felix programs were soaring.

This year, legislators suspected the money was being wasted, but complaints to Ezra were met with threats to takeover the education system to force compliance.

Finally, the Legislature was fed up and ordered up its own investigation. Led by Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D, Waianae) and Rep. Scott Saiki (D, McCully) and researched by Marion Higa, the highly respected state auditor, this was no feel-good panel.

Witnesses were subpoenaed and put under oath so that lying would be a criminal act. When some officials refused to comply with the subpoenas, the court refused to let them testify. As the panel continued its work, it became clear it was finding abuse, mismanagement and budgeting waste.

In the process, former schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu stepped down as the committee uncovered an entangling alliance between LeMahieu and the operator of a $600,000 program for Felix students on the Big Island.

"If this committee is influencing anything, it is with scrutiny and accountability," says Hanabusa, (D, Waianae).

Speaker Say is now looking at the committee to hold the line on Felix expenditures. The unmanageable budget will be brought down, he hopes, because of the committee's work.

Hanabusa sees the committee's product as a self-defining truth detector.

A simple example, Hanabusa says, is that in the past when the Department of Education was asked by the Legislature for expenses for a program, officials gave what was budgeted, not what was actually spent.

It is akin to telling your teenagers that their education is important and finding that interpreted to mean they can spend whatever is needed for prom night, and then finding out they are budgeting for Lear jets and parties in Tahiti.

"Now the committee understands the programs, and the respective agencies are going to have a hard time pulling the wool over our eyes," Hanabusa says.

"The Legislature is not going to be fooled as the departments have done in the past by using the threat of receivership."

The committee has found former state employees involved with Felix students who left their jobs to form companies to sell services to the same Felix students.

Last week, Ezra said he had no problems with the Legislature's effort to look into fraud and mismanagement, but stopped short of giving the committee a clear shot of examining all the needed witnesses.

The Legislature took far too long to start its investigation, but now that it is finding abuse and waste, it is not likely to stop until the bureaucracy is forced to change.





Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at rborreca@starbulletin.com.



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