Friday, March 19, 2004

State ed board
member under fire

Colleagues accuse Laura Thielen of
twisting facts during a radio interview

Public school students face obstacles

Board of Education member Laura Thielen got a verbal thrashing from her colleagues last night for making a "personal attack" on Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto and "twisting the facts" in her campaign for local school boards.

"We have one member among us who has violated not only our code of conduct, but various ethical standards," Chairman Breene Harimoto said at last night's Board of Education meeting at Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School.

Harimoto took Thielen to task for telling a statewide audience on KSSK radio on Wednesday that what needs to change at the Department of Education is "the central administration ... Pat and the number of layers below her."

He also chastised her for spreading misinformation about the department, using her status as a Board of Education member in letters to the editor and to legislators instead of saying she was speaking in her personal capacity, as required by the board's code.

Thielen said she had not meant to attack the superintendent and had privately apologized to Hamamoto, saying she thought she had said, "Not Pat, the layers below her."

"The question flustered me," she said. "I would like to apologize publicly. I have told her this is not personal."

But she defended her right to speak her mind.

"In addition to our code of conduct, we all swore to uphold the state Constitution, and in our state Constitution we have the right to freedom of speech," Thielen said. "I do not feel anything I have said or done violates the ethical code of conduct of this board."

Thielen sat red-faced as several of her colleagues echoed Harimoto's concerns, including Denise Matsumoto, Karen Knudsen, Shannon Ajifu, Mary Cochran, Sherwood Hara and Herbert Watanabe. They said they were reluctant to speak out publicly but could not do so in executive session because it violates the board's sunshine rules.

"We should no longer tolerate half-lies, because that's what a half-truth is, half a lie," said Matsumoto. "Enough is enough."

Harimoto cited a letter to the editor in which Thielen contended that the farther schools are from Department of Education headquarters, the lower the student achievement.

"Because this member has a private agenda, facts are being twisted, and conclusions are being reached that are totally irresponsible," said Harimoto.

Board members also pointed to data from the National Center for Education Statistics that show Hawaii's Department of Education has a thin administrative layer, 2.1 percent vs. a 3.9 percent national average, and spends less than the national average per pupil, contrary to the image of a bloated bureaucracy promoted in the campaign for local school boards.

Thielen said she is being targeted because she is promoting a position unpopular with the education establishment.

"Because I have spoken out in favor of local school boards, I have been subjected to increasingly vicious attacks by fellow board members that have culminated in tonight," she said.


Study says public school
students face obstacles

More than half of the students in Hawaii's public schools face some disadvantage, including poverty, learning disabilities or a language barrier, according to a new report.

The Superintendent's Annual Report on School Performance and Improvement in Hawaii for 2003, released yesterday, offers a snapshot of Hawaii's public school population.

In the past decade, while overall enrollment rose only 3.3 percent, the number of students receiving lunch subsidies, a common measure of poverty, jumped by nearly 50 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction in special education increased by more than 80 percent, largely as a result of a federal court mandate requiring better identification and services.

Of the 182,700 students in Hawaii's public schools in the 2002-2003 school year:

>> 48.8 percent had no disadvantage.

>> 11.1 percent faced multiple disadvantages, including poverty, a language barrier or learning disabilities.

>> 33.9 percent qualified only as low-income.

>> 4.6 percent qualified only for special education or had other disabilities.

>> 1.5 percent faced only the barrier of speaking English as a second language.

"Children from impoverished families tend to start school already behind their peers in academic development," the report said. "Put simply, the task facing the public schools is steadily becoming more difficult and more costly."


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