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Friday, June 2, 2000

Hawaii State Seal

State might
lure special-ed teachers
with higher salaries,
Cayetano says

By Mary Adamski


The state may now try to attract the special-education teachers it needs to comply with federal law by offering them higher salaries than other teachers get, said Gov. Ben Cayetano.

The governor said flexibility is one of the positive effects of a negative court ruling Tuesday. U.S. District Judge David Ezra found the state in contempt for failing to improve services to special education students as ordered by the so-called Felix consent decree.

"It's good in the way that the court basically wanted to help clear the way for us. That's the bottom reason behind the court not fining the state and appointing a federal monitor," the governor said yesterday.

June 30 was the deadline the state faced for compliance with the Felix decree approved by the court in 1994. In settling the civil case filed on behalf of Jennifer Felix, the decree bound the state departments of education and health to provide for students with mental, learning and emotional problems as required in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There are an estimated 23,000 children eligible for special services.

By his ruling, Ezra speeds the process, for example to create more clerical positions, hire more speech pathologists and speed contracting with experts such as occupational therapists.

An example of the bureaucratic flaws cited by Ezra concerned agencies' failure to share information.

"The decree requires that the system's infrastructure 'include an interagency computerized database and information system to support the system of care which is implemented.' However, the state has failed to do so, but has developed independent systems not capable of interacting with each other," the judge found.

The governor said the contempt ruling "certainly will give us a little more leverage than we had in the past. It's not easy to have people make changes, especially when it affects the way they have been doing things for many, many years."

But Cayetano said the state needs to keep control of funding decisions. He said the judge said it may be necessary to earmark funds not in the Department of Education budget.

"If we need to make adjustments in the budget, if we need to go out and raise the money, then the state wants to do it in conjunction with the Legislature. That's the way it should be done."

Cayetano said he will meet Monday with state schools superintendent Paul LeMahieu and state health director Bruce Anderson to "go over the landscape again to see what we can do under the court decision. The ruling will give us some more possibilities. It also puts us under a time line as to when we need to get things done."

"First of all, hire more special ed teachers and see whether we can make some changes in the way we do things."

In his decision, Ezra acknowledged that compliance efforts have been moving along under LeMahieu and Anderson.

"While the court will not ignore the state's recent efforts to comply with the decree, the court will also not ignore its history of unexcused noncompliance or otherwise unsatisfactory progress," he said in the written order filed yesterday.

Ezra said the state's efforts to partner with the University of Hawaii and other local and mainland universities to recruit teachers hasn't borne fruit.

"The total number of graduates has been less than the projected number of graduates," he wrote.

The state also argued there is a nationwide shortage of special-education teachers, a problem beyond the state's control.

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