Thursday, January 25, 2001
draws auditors fireThe issue: The state auditor has criticized the state's program for special-needs students.
Our view: This multimillion-dollar program must be conducted more effectively.
EDUCATING "special needs" -- a euphemism for handicapped or disabled -- children is a challenge. In Hawaii, the challenge has been compounded by years of neglect that led to the filing of a federal lawsuit and a consent decree requiring the state to meet its responsibilities to educate such children. Last May a federal judge found the state in contempt for failing to improve services as ordered.
The state has been struggling to meet a December 2001 deadline for compliance with the order. It has increased spending on special education about 500 percent since 1992, with the estimated cost for the next two years reaching $700 million. The number of children identified as having special needs has increased from 13,000 in 1994 to nearly 23,000 today.
The program is consuming a lot of money at the expense of other programs. Making matters worse is a state auditor's report finding serious shortcomings in the state's efforts to comply with the so-called Felix decree.
The report charged that the program lacks a clear definition of which children are eligible for help, which makes it difficult to limit provision of services and drives up costs.
The authors also found that Hawaii's focus is on getting the consent decree lifted, resulting in less concern about whether services are effective and whether the children are making progress.
School Superintendent Paul LeMahieu disputed the finding that the definition for children eligible for the program is inadequate. He said the problem is that school staff need more training to make correct diagnoses and recommend the best treatments. He acknowledged that some children have been receiving services beyond their needs but said this situation is being addressed.
Health Director Bruce Anderson said that contrary to the report there is accountability in the special education system.
At a legislative hearing, State Auditor Marion Higa said she stands by the report, although the findings are controversial. "We will tell you as we see it," she told the legislators.
LeMahieu maintained that the state has made significant progress since the investigation for the report was conducted last spring. He said he feared that "an alliance distracted by the noise of negative rhetoric could come together and impair this final bit of our effort."
Rep. Ken Ito, chairman of the House Education Committee, observed that teachers and parents are growing weary of the controversy, adding that even the legislators are frustrated.
The difficulties in reaching compliance with the Felix decree should not be underestimated. The state has been forced to recruit nationwide for trained special-education teachers -- offering pay and benefits well beyond those received by other teachers. Even so, it has had little success because there is a national shortage.
It may well be that in its efforts to meet the court's demands the state has neglected questions of effectiveness. If so, that should be corrected. But it appears unrealistic to recommend better definitions when these are set out in federal law and the state is under a federal consent decree.
The shortcomings cited in the report may be a consequence of mistakes made in the state's efforts to make up for previous neglect. This program needs improvement, but the beleaguered officials in charge maintain that it is in fact improving. Considering the amount of money involved, it had better be.
center will fill needThe issue: The Filipino community center planned for Waipahu has gotten a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Our view: The center will meet a real need and the guarantee will help significantly in completing the project.
HAWAII Filipinos over the years have launched several projects that fizzled out, but the latest one, a community center in Waipahu, could be the exception.
Construction began last month on the $13.8 million project on two acres of former sugar lands near Hans L'Orange Park.
The three-story, 50,000-square-foot FilCom Center is to include commercial tenants, an assembly hall, recreation areas, a business and technology center, cultural displays and offices.
The project has just gotten a boost with the approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of a $5 million loan guarantee.
Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who helped secure the guarantee, said it will go a long way toward helping the nonprofit Filipino Community Center Inc. complete the building. Abercrombie said the center "will provide a focal point for cultural activities, community gatherings, and a testament to the contributions of Filipinos in Hawaii."
The center hopes to become self-sustaining through income from its commercial rentals and cultural events. It is expected to open in May or June 2001.
In addition to serving the state's Filipino community, the center could help town-center merchants recover from the closure of Oahu Sugar Co. five years ago, which hurt sales.
ROSE Cruz Churma, interim executive director of Filipino Community Center Inc., said the organization wants "to serve as a catalyst to the revitalization of Waipahu."
Festivals and other cultural activities will attempt to draw visitors and shoppers from around Oahu, providing an alternative to big-box retailers and strip malls and generating more pedestrian traffic on Waipahu Street.
Having seen other Hawaii Filipino projects fail, we have our fingers crossed about the community center. But this one seems to be for real -- a long overdue focal point for Filipino activities.
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Rupert E. Phillips, CEO
Frank Bridgewater, Acting Managing Editor
Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor
Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors
A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor