Now jobless, school board ombudsman rails at firing
McKeen says she was let go, and officials refuse to discuss why
A Board of Education employee who dealt with hundreds of school complaints from students, parents, teachers and the public each year is alleging she was fired without much explanation.
Beth McKeen, who held the school board's ombudsman post since July 2004, claims she was let go Jan. 23 after her boss, school board Executive Director Galen Onouye, gave her the option to resign or be fired.
"It was a surprise. I was shocked," McKeen said. "I have a lot of positive feedback from people I have served."
She said Onouye would tell her only that school board leaders chose to eliminate her position. Onouye said he could not talk about the case, citing McKeen's privacy rights as a former employee. He said the board will be looking for a person with a communications background to fill the job.
Donna Ikeda, newly elected school board chairwoman, also said she could not reveal whether McKeen was forced out, calling it a personnel matter.
A phone message seeking comment from Vice Chairman Herbert Watanabe was not returned. Board Vice Chairwoman Karen Knudsen said she had been away from the state for weeks and was learning about the case.
The issue has angered some school board members, who praised McKeen for keeping the board on top of issues, swiftly resolving them and preventing potential lawsuits. At least three members, Mary Cochran of Maui and Garret Toguchi and Lei Isa, who represent Oahu, said they were not aware McKeen was leaving.
"She had to give us reports. We got a good feel of what was going on statewide," Cochran said of McKeen. "I find it outrageous."
McKeen said she averaged more than 300 calls each year, mostly from parents dissatisfied with how schools addressed concerns ranging from bullying to complaints about teachers.
One of them involved Tina Mohr, who said her daughter was assaulted by classmates at Kealakehe Intermediate in Kailua-Kona about three years ago. At the time, Mohr said, she felt school administrators were ignoring her complaints, so a friend referred her to McKeen.
"She was very professional. I considered her a very good listener," Mohr recalled. "And she would follow up. She acted as a neutral party and had good negotiation skills."
McKeen's departure came in the same week that longtime Department of Education spokesman Greg Knudsen resigned.
It also happened as lawmakers prepare to hold a hearing on a bill tomorrow that would fund seven new Department of Education ombudsman positions, one per district, when the next school year begins in July.
Senate Bill 2664, introduced by Senate Education Chairman Norman Sakamoto, says each ombudsman would be responsible for investigating complaints against the Education Department and addressing public questions and concerns.
Sakamoto (D, Salt Lake-Foster Village) said the positions would allow complex-area superintendents and principals to focus on school operations.
"There would be a cost," he said, "but the savings in more effective use of key personnel in the educational mission would far outweigh the cost of these people."