DOE puts dozens of teachers on paid leave pending investigations

Two people are getting paid, but just one of them is actually working. That’s essentially what’s happening in dozens of cases with the state Dept. of Education.

Employees are put on leave with pay pending investigation while a fill-in does their work. This double-whammy for taxpayers can drag on for years.

It happens to teachers, staff, and even principals with no definitive end in sight.

“In the typical case, they don’t know exactly what they’re accused of doing,” said Randy Roth, a University of Hawaii law professor, who has spoken out against the practice on behalf of current and retired principals. “They’re getting paid, some of them for years, but they can’t go back to the school.”

After KHON2 filed an open records request, the DOE said it knows of 57 active cases where people are on department-directed leave or leave pending investigation, the oldest stretching back to February 2011. The DOE has six cases dating back to 2012 and the other 50 or so spanning 2013 and 2014.

“I can tell of at least one or two cases where an employee has been out on leave (for) a couple months and we don’t believe they’ve even begun investigating, frankly,” said Randy Perreira, executive director of Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA), which represents principals and some staff.

“When the teacher is out being accused of a certain wrongdoing, the person taking his or her place may not be a certified teacher,” said Hawaii State Teachers Association president Wil Okabe. “Nobody in the department or HSTA or teachers themselves want to have a bad teacher in the classrooms. As long as we focus on the importance of getting the teachers back into the classroom, to have a qualified teacher, that is the most important thing.”

The teachers union says the issue is even more extensive than the DOE’s count. It knows of 80 alone.

Why the difference? The DOE says it has no system-wide tracking of investigations at the school level.

It’s an issue first brought to light by KHON2’s Always Investigating and has been getting more attention as demands mount to come up with a fix.

“The perception is that you can somehow be hung out to dry without any conclusion as to whether or not you are responsible for any wrongdoing,” Hawaii Board of Education member Brian De Lima said at this week’s meeting.

When Always Investigating first reported on the backlog last fall, there was just one person at the DOE to oversee these cases. There’s been some progress since.

“We made a request for funding to the legislature,” said schools superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi. “We did get one position funded, but in the meantime, what we did was we looked at our budget in the office of human resources and found some vacant positions and utilized some money to hire two individuals and we have a third we’re recruiting for now.”

But many say it’s still not happening fast enough.

“The DOE has some serious concerns about the capacity they have in human resources,” Perreira said, “whether or not they’re able to conduct investigations in a reasonable period of time. The school code provides that generally such investigations should only take 10 days.”

But the code also leaves the discretion for timing with the superintendent.

“Do you think the idea of having a time cap on these things to serve both parties would be a reasonable solution?” KHON2 asked.

“It might indeed be a solution,” Matayoshi said. “One of the things I would be worried about is jumping to a conclusion too early, and also sometimes there’s been one party or another, their schedules aren’t working. Someone’s out sick for a while.”

KHON2 asked the unions: Are they being as responsive as they can, as quickly as they can?

“We certainly try. Given the fact that a lot of times these are complicated investigations that involve a lot of people, and certainly there are confidentiality concerns, we try to make the department move as quickly as possible,” Perreira said.

“It is a very contentious situation when a person goes through an investigation process,” Okabe said. “There are cases when the accused teacher does not have a lot of information of who is accusing them of a particular allegation. We would not want to be in favor of just trying to expedite something in regards to due process and we want to make sure it’s extensive.”

Yet a solution limiting the time cases should take has precedent in other union agreements outside the education sector. KHON2 found other deals that limit how long investigations should take, such as 30 days, to keep both sides talking.

“Absolutely, I think it would be in our interest, but more importantly in the best interest of the individual employees, that there be some kind of finite time limit to conduct these investigations,” Perreira said.

Okabe also said he would support a time limit. “The only way we can try to address this situation is to do it collaboratively,” he said, “because we have a four-year agreement in our contract, so anything else would have to be a memorandum of understanding.”

All sides tell KHON2 they’d be willing to start talking about such an agreement, and we’ll follow up to see if they do. Meanwhile, the superintendent suggests a different approach.

“Some of these maybe don’t need a full investigation. Is it something that’s relatively minor? And that’s always a judgment call,” Matayoshi said.

The solution may not necessarily mean fewer people will be put on the paid-on-leave bench. The DOE says anyone who poses a safety threat must be taken off the job.

“What we’re really looking at is the risk when a person stays on the job site. It could be safety, it could be issues around fraud,” Matayoshi said. “If there are allegations that somebody has been messing around with school-level funds, do you want them back in a position where they could? And also there may be issues around hostile work environment.”

Critics warn of the cost of doing nothing — more than just paying twice for the person out plus their substitute.

“On due process grounds, there’s a real problem saying people are under investigation, preventing them from getting the information they need to defend themselves, and go on month after month after month and in some cases years,” Roth said. “I think the DOE is exposing the taxpayers to some very big lawsuits. I think it’s a matter of time before somebody sues.”

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