Bishop Estate wants its severanceBy Ian Lind
pay returned after the two
filed bias complaints
Two women who lost their jobs in 1995 when Bishop Estate trustees slashed alternative education programs have become the first former Kamehameha teachers to be hit with lawsuits demanding return of their severance pay and benefits.
The suits filed on behalf of the trustees of the $10 billion estate charge that Joyal K. Kihara and Beverly D. Rodrigues violated a waiver agreement they signed and must return the money.
To qualify for severance pay and benefits, employees were required to sign a waiver in which they agreed not to initiate any "complaint, claim or suit . . . for any matter related to or arising out of" their employment at the school.
That agreement was violated when the pair filed discrimination complaints last year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the estate's suit alleges. The pair sued the estate for discrimination in June 1997 after receiving a "right to sue" letter from the EEOC.
The suit is in response to the legal complaints filed by Kihara and Rodrigues, and makes no mention of any statements critical of the trustees or their management policies.
Both experienced educatorsBishop Estate is asking for the return of $34,198.31 paid to Rodrigues and $26,013.47 paid to Kihara, plus the estate's attorneys' fees and court costs.
Kihara and Rodrigues deny the estate's charges. The two are both Hawaiian and spent a combined 33 years at teaching in an alternate education program and counseling Hawaiian students before being laid off.
Their attorney, Elizabeth Jubin Fujiwara, says the waiver agreement does not apply because the discrimination complaints stem from handling of their applications for other positions at Kamehameha and do not directly challenge the 1995 layoffs or program cuts.
Passed over for new jobsIn one lawsuit, Kihara says she applied for a vacant counselor position but was not even interviewed, while three men from her former department applied and were all interviewed. The male eventually hired lacked her experience as an academic counselor, the suit charges.
Rodrigues, in a separate suit, says she was passed over for another position despite hiring guidelines that should have favored her as a former full-time employee. A Caucasian woman with limited experience with Hawaiian culture was hired instead, the suit states.
According to court documents, the two offered to return their severance pay in August 1996 after filing their discrimination complaints with the EEOC, but the estate refused to consider the offer unless they also agreed to pay attorneys' fees and costs. Kihara and Rodrigues declined.
"We started two years ago, before this got momentum," Kihara said. "The heart of it is losing the services to the children. We have a responsibility to stand up."
Rodrigues said teachers have to be models for their students. "You've got to walk and talk the same line. If we teach the kids about standing up, you've got to be ready to stand for what you believe."
'Fabulous people'The two teachers display a passionate commitment to helping Hawaiian students succeed in school in the face of community and family problems, according to teachers and school administrators familiar with their work.
"These are fabulous people," says Sherlyn Franklin Goo, another former Kamehameha staffer and now president of the Institute for Native Pacific Education and Culture, a nonprofit group formed to carry on some of the discontinued outreach efforts.
Both enjoy supportGoo said students and school administrators have strongly supported Kihara and Rodrigues, who were able to continue their services at two Windward Oahu schools last year through a grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
OHA is considering whether to fund a scaled back program at Castle High School through the current academic year.
The program includes classes for students identified as having academic or discipline problems that aim at improving self-understanding, self-esteem, communication and survival skills. The teacher/counselors also provide individual counseling for students, and are available to serve as advocates when students deal with an unfamiliar bureaucracy. They also consult with or train other teachers in dealing with the problems of disadvantaged Hawaiian students.
Letter of criticismKihara wrote a July 28, 1995, letter to the trustees in which she criticized their decision to spend millions to renovate their offices at Kawaiahao Plaza and buy a mainland luxury golf course while cutting out programs for students who aren't academically talented.
"What is more important? Appearances and power or saving the lives of disadvantaged Hawaiian children?" Kihara wrote.
She also chided trustees for talking about the importance of traditional Hawaiian values but failing to take them into account in carrying out the program cuts and layoffs.
One month later, on Aug. 29, 1995, Kihara was informed by mail that another applicant had been selected for the job she sought.
Official: Estate isnt tryingBy Ian Lind
to gag ex-employees
Former employees of Kamehameha Schools who speak out publicly have no reason to fear that Bishop Estate will retaliate by reclaiming their severance pay and benefits, according to an estate representative.
Elisa Yadao, media relations manager for the estate, denied rumors that have been circulating among 170 employees who were laid off in 1995 following the termination of Kamehameha Schools' early education, alternative education, and community education programs.
According to the rumors, the estate might interpret any public criticism as violating a legal agreement in which employees waived any legal challenges to the layoffs in exchange for a severance pay package. But Yadao said the waiver was designed to block future lawsuits and not to stifle public criticism or complaints.
"The waiver that former staff signed dealt specifically with lawsuits filed in connection with their employment here," Yadao said after checking with estate attorneys.
"Any other interpretation would be an error."
The waiver, which employees were required to sign to be eligible for severance pay, provides that the employee:
Releases Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate from "any and all claims related to or arising out of your employment and/or ending of employment with KSBE," including claims based on alleged discrimination or any other cause.
Agrees not to "cause or commence any complaint, claim or suit" against KSBE, its trustees or employees.
Allows the estate to demand repayment of any severance pay, along with legal fees, if an employee later files a suit relating to their former employment or layoff.
Beadie Kanahele Dawson, attorney for the group of Kamehameha students, parents and alumni known as Na Pua a Ke Ali'i Pauahi, said there is no reason why former employees can't speak out.
"They are no longer employees, and they're citizens with freedom of speech, for Pete's sake," Dawson said.
Dawson speculated that some former employees confuse the narrow terms of the waiver with the very broad provisions of the estate's employee handbook.
A letter signed by trustee Richard Wong recently warned staffers that their employment contract and the employee handbook prohibit them from speaking to reporters about the estate without prior authorization, Dawson said.
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