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Published in Print: May 23, 2001, as Hawaii Chief Resigns From Board Of Federally Funded Lab

Hawaii Chief Resigns From Board Of Federally Funded Lab

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Hawaii schools Superintendent Paul G. LeMahieu has complied with a request from the state school board to resign from his position at a nonprofit company that provides educational services to his state.

Until last week, the superintendent was one of 10 chief state school officers from the Pacific region to serve on the board of Pacific Resources for Education and Learning, or PREL, which also functions as a federally financed regional education laboratory.

The members of the state board have indicated that they don't believe Mr. LeMahieu has done anything improper. But they say they want to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest since the Hawaii Department of Education has a $2.3 million contract with the organization for work in many of Hawaii's schools.

Mr. LeMahieu's May 16 resignation may make him the first state schools chief not to serve on the board of one of the 10 regional labs funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

"That is the oddest request I've ever heard," said C. Todd Jones, the president of the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, a Washington-based trade association that represents education research, development, and technology organizations, including federally financed research centers and regional labs.

"Their mission is to serve their states," Mr. Jones said of the labs. The best way to ensure that, he said, is for state chiefs or senior deputies in state education departments to be members of the labs' boards.

Contracts between the laboratories and the education departments are common, Mr. Jones added.

PREL covers the expenses associated with attending its meetings for members of its board. But Mr. Jones said attending the meetings, which are held on different islands throughout the Pacific, is not the perk it might seem to be.

"I've personally been to a PREL board meeting," he said. "You travel 15 hours. This is not a relaxing getaway."

'Only Fish in the Pond'

Mr. LeMahieu, who became the superintendent of Hawaii's statewide school system in 1998, awarded the contract to PREL last year under the authority a federal judge granted him to help schools in the state comply with a consent decree. The consent decree is the result of a 1994 class action—Felix v. Cayetano—that was filed against the Hawaii education department and the state health department alleging that the state had failed to provide education and mental-health services to students with special needs.

The superintendent said last week that the schools where PREL has been working have made considerable progress since last year, and that a court representative has indicated that he wants the one-year contract extended.

"There is widespread consensus that PREL is the only fish in the pond that can do this work," Mr. LeMahieu said.

John W. Kofel, the president and chief executive officer of PREL, said he was disappointed by the Hawaii board's request.

And while PREL, which is based in Honolulu, will continue to work in schools throughout the state, he said that not having Mr. LeMahieu on the board would affect the overall leadership of the organization.

"He is a valued member," Mr. Kofel said. "He is also a recognized researcher, which most chief state school officers are not."

Immediately before becoming Hawaii's schools chief, Mr. LeMahieu served as the executive director of the Delaware Education Research and Development Center at the University of Delaware. Also before becoming the state superintendent, he was a technical adviser to Education Week's 1998 Quality Counts report.

PREL also provides services to American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Mr. LeMahieu said that he believes the state board's action was meant to protect him. But he added that a few of the members have mentioned that they might be willing to take another look at the issue.

"I hope the board will reconsider," he said.

Vol. 20, Issue 37, Page 21

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