Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Panel to subpoena
special-ed records

Lawmakers want to know how the
state spent $300 million to comply
with the Felix consent decree

By Richard Borreca

A special House-Senate legislative committee with subpoena powers will start an investigation next week into how the state has spent more than $300 million a year for special education students to comply with the Felix consent decree.

The investigation was triggered by a legislative auditor's report in January that complained it was impossible to examine the budgets of the state education and health departments to figure out what were essential and what were nonessential services to special education children.

The committee's co-chairs, Rep. Scott Saiki (D, McCully) and Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D, Waianae) said the committee plans on issuing subpoenas and placing witnesses under oath.

"We will use the subpoenas to secure attendance and to compel testimony," Hanabusa said.

Saiki added that legislative auditor Marion Higa complained that she was unable to get certain information from the Department of Education, so forcing the state to comply through subpoenas may be necessary.

"We want to know if the services being provided are effective and whether the students are benefiting from the millions spent on special education," Saiki said.

The Felix consent decree stems from a lawsuit filed for Jennifer Felix and other special-needs students in 1993 that charged that the state was violating federal law by failing to educate the students.

The state settled by promising to meet court-mandated requirements.

But U.S. District Judge David Ezra, who approved the Felix consent decree seven years ago, has found the state in contempt for not being in compliance by the June 30 deadline. The state now has until Dec. 30 to meet all requirements.

Special-needs students for decades have received "under funded, substandard care," Ezra said.

The state could have slowly built and funded the infrastructure during the past 30 years to meet special-education students' needs but instead chose to spend the money elsewhere until it was sued, he said.

Hanabusa and Saiki said they do not expect their investigation to prompt further sanctions by Ezra because they do not expect to change the funding or the methods of treatment, just to check how the money is being spent.

"We are not interfering, we are fulfilling our obligations," Hanabusa said.

"I think our investigation will complement what the courts are trying to do," Saiki said.

The committee, with six representatives and six senators, will start Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. in room 325 at the state Capitol.

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