State of Hawaii

Felix monitor says
DOE resists change

By Crystal Kua

After nearly nine years of prodding Hawaii public schools to do more to help special-needs students, Ivor Groves leaves his job as federal monitor believing he has done all he can even as he concedes that much work remains.

As one of his last acts on the job, Groves recommended the state remain under federal oversight as it works toward complying with the Felix consent decree mandating improved mental health and educational services.

His resignation as the court-appointed monitor was revealed last month at the same time that a federal court was being advised to continue oversight over the schools' special-needs services through December 2003.

In a subsequent interview with the Star-Bulletin, Groves expressed his frustrations with Hawaii politics and bureaucratic "sacred cows" as he worked to get the state out from under the court's oversight.

"I think that one of the things that had been harder than I thought was the end. I thought it would actually get easier and easier and it didn't turn out that way," he said with a chuckle.

In 1993, parents of disabled children including Jennifer Felix filed a class-action lawsuit alleging Hawaii was violating federal law because it failed to provide mental health, special education and other services to those children. U.S. District Judge David Ezra in 1994 ruled the state was in violation of the law. In a consent decree settling the lawsuit, the state agreed to create an expansive system to provide those services over the next six years.

Ezra found the state in contempt for missing that deadline and two years later Hawaii's public education system likely faces at least another 17 months of court supervision because of deteriorating performance by the state since March.

Groves was appointed court monitor in October 1994 while on the faculty at the University of Southern Florida. His reports and recommendations since then have tracked the progress of the state in meeting kids' educational and mental-health needs.

Groves' duties primarily centered on setting benchmarks and testing the system's ability to meet those benchmarks and other compliance goals.

One of the reasons that Groves and others point to for stalled compliance is the political climate within the Department of Education.

As an example, Groves' supplemental compliance report last month noted the resignations within a year of specialists who came from outside Hawaii to help the DOE with autism services, reading improvement and the new behavioral health program.

Groves wrote that while they all left for different reasons, they all felt unwelcome and unsupported in their roles.

Groves told the Star-Bulletin that while people move fluidly between the borders of states on the mainland, Hawaii's isolation and its strong union affiliation could explain why longtime insiders are rewarded.

"You can understand why that is, but you can also see the downside of that, which makes for a very incestuous organization," Groves said.

His recommendations -- such as contracting special education teachers and giving the superintendent of education and the health director special powers to bypass procurement, collective bargaining and other legal impediments to progress -- rattled cages within the DOE.

"I think the whole special powers issues triggered some of the political sacred cows, if you will, or the traditions. ... All of that went counter to kind of traditionally the way business has been done."

State schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said the department is looking into the issues raised in the report about the specialists feeling unwelcome.

Shelby Floyd, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the Felix lawsuit, echoed Groves' concerns. "I think the loss of the state-level experts is heart-breaking."

Floyd said the DOE is now relying on the same people who were doing the job at the time the state was found in violation of federal law.

"It says something about the DOE culture. The DOE culture is poisonous to outsiders. It doesn't want them, it doesn't accept them and it makes sure that they leave as quickly as possible," she said.

While Floyd praised Groves' work as court monitor, "especially in the early years," she said he later fell victim to local politics.

Floyd said she has seen a change in the last couple of years in Groves' work, with him sometimes ignoring concerns brought by the plaintiffs' attorneys.

"I think that particularly this last year the personal attacks and professional attacks on him by the Legislature and others took its toll and I don't think he was able to do the job that he wanted to do or that we wanted him to do," Floyd said. "I think those attacks influenced his reports and his willingness to call a spade a spade."

The Joint Senate-House Investigative Committee last year began looking into state spending related to the consent-decree compliance effort. Lawmakers and state Auditor Marion Higa questioned whether Groves had a conflict of interest in his role as court monitor while at the same time giving technical assistance to the state to comply with the compliance benchmarks he set.

The committee sought sworn testimony from Groves and his associate Judith Schrag, who sat on a technical assistance panel with Groves.

Subpoenas to Schrag and Groves were quashed by Ezra.

"How can there be professional attacks when we can't even ask him questions. We weren't able to even get near Ivor Groves, so how can it be us?" asked Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D, Waianae). "I think we're getting too much credit for something we didn't even come close to doing."

But while the committee has gone to court to enforce its subpoena on Schrag, it may be harder to compel Groves, who lives in Florida, to appear.

"I would like to think that he isn't the lost witness. I don't see why Dr. Groves would not volunteer to come back," Hanabusa said. "I would think that he would be more than willing to explain to the people of this state by way of testimony under oath as to what he did and how the criteria was set up so that we can have all these issues laid to rest."

Groves said that the politics surrounding the Legislature "certainly ... was an annoyance" but did not figure into his decision to resign.

"Commuting (from Florida) to work in Hawaii is hard work and being away from home a lot more so than I had ever really anticipated. Really, it was more those issues," said Groves, who is also a court monitor overseeing the child and welfare system in Alabama, another job he hopes to wind down soon.

Groves describes his Hawaii experience overall as a positive one.

"I think there's a better understanding of what the expectations are for children with special needs," he said. "I think the level of knowledge and expertise grew over the last eight years."

And, he said, it was just time to move on. "I felt like I had done my job."

State Department of Education

E-mail to City Desk


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --