The Hawaii Department of Education acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner when it demoted and reassigned the principal of the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind to a lower-level position at a different school three years ago, an arbitrator hearing a grievance in the case concluded late last month.

In a 34-page decision issued on Feb. 24, independent arbitrator Theodore Sakai found that the DOE failed to conduct an investigation into the concerns raised by the complex area superintendent who recommended the move and produced “insufficient evidence” to justify the reassignment and demotion of longtime deaf educator Angel Ramos.

The decision, released to Civil Beat by the DOE in response to a public records request, highlights the department’s failure to look into the basis for the concerns about Ramos brought by Rochelle Mahoe, complex area superintendent for the Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani district, and ultimately signed off on by the state’s top superintendent.

The decision also underscores the disruption caused to the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind, a roughly 60-student school at the base of Diamond Head that caters to students who are deaf or hard of hearing, as a result of Ramos’ removal.

The Oahu campus of Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind serves deaf and special education students on a referral basis. John Hill/Civil Beat/2017

The decision stems from the reassignment of Ramos by Mahoe in August 2019 from his leadership of HSDB to a vice principal role at Kalakaua Middle School in Kalihi, which does not offer programs for the hard of hearing. Mahoe based her decision to reassign Ramos on a performance review she wrote for the 2018-19 school year that cited problems such as a lack of leadership, a lack of concern for the safety and well-being of students, mismanagement of finances and disregard of DOE policies.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association, the union that represents principals and other administrators, filed a grievance on behalf of Ramos alleging violations of multiple provisions of the group’s collective bargaining contract with the DOE. HGEA argued that the move was disciplinary in nature and that DOE failed to show just cause for demoting Ramos. The union also argued that Mahoe had “a subjective bias” against Ramos.

The DOE took the position that the transfer was proper since it was performance-based, arguing that Ramos failed to correct “a vast number of deficiencies” that had been flagged during his three-year tenure.

However, Sakai, the former director of the Department of Public Safety and an arbitrator mutually agreed upon by both parties, sided with the union and Ramos, saying Mahoe provided “no reason for the transfer” and “did not specify which policies and procedures that she wanted (Ramos) to learn.”

“Absent an articulated justification or plan for what (Ramos) was supposed to do while on this (demoted) status, it appears that Mahoe simply wanted to remove (him) from HSDB without thought to the impact (on the principal),” Sakai wrote.

Sakai also found that DOE’s failure to conduct an investigation, “even though one was specifically required by its own rules,” made the decision “unfair and renders (DOE’s) action arbitrary and capricious.”

Sakai ordered DOE to “immediately reinstate” Ramos to his former position and issue any back pay owed as the result of the salary reduction the principal experienced when he was shifted to a lower-level position for three years.

Ramos earned $125,000 a year at HSDB and his pay was reduced to $90,000 as a result of the demotion. He had also occupied a small cottage on HSDB’s campus rent-free with his family and was forced to vacate the property due to his reassignment, a fact that will figure into the costs of back payment.

In an email, DOE spokesman Derek Inoshita said the department could not provide specific details on the timing of Ramos’ reinstatement because it is “a personnel matter.”

Mahoe did not respond to a request for comment.

It is not clear what Ramos’ pending reinstatement means for HSDB’s current principal, Jamia Green, who moved here from the mainland with her family last year to take the position, according to a teacher at the school, Thomas Graham. Green did not respond to a request for comment.

Catherine Payne, the chairwoman of the Board of Education, a former principal and the interim superintendent of the same district before Mahoe assumed the role, said it is not unusual for area superintendents to reassign principals, but it ultimately falls on the DOE superintendent to approve such moves.

In some cases principals contest decisions through the union. In others they do not.

“Not all of them go to arbitration,” Payne said.

Deaf School Community Reacts

When Ramos was reassigned to Kalakaua Middle in August 2019, many in the deaf school community were taken aback. Cheryl Mizusawa, a longtime teacher’s aide at HSDB who also attended the school in the mid 1960s and 1970s, said that after a long period of non-deaf administrators leading the school, Ramos’ arrival was welcomed.

“He made the students comfortable; they looked up to him,” Mizusawa said in a phone interview with the assistance of a video-relay deaf interpreter. “I could see the impact of that. He really lifted up the students, encouraged them to learn more challenging material, he motivated them. He was very approachable to students.”

Graham, now in his 26th year teaching at HSDB, wrote in a 2019 letter to the Board of Education that Ramos created “a welcoming environment” when he was hired after an “expensive and time consuming national search.” He said Ramos helped expand the school’s American Sign Language and robotics programs, expanded the school’s residential boarding program beyond neighbor island kids to needy Oahu students and helped boost the school’s enrollment.

“(Mahoe) didn’t care for how (Ramos) did things, and he stood up to her,” Graham said in a recent Zoom interview.

He also said the personnel changes were very costly to DOE, since they had to provide a sign language interpreter not only for the interim principals who took Ramos’ place, but also provide one for Ramos to communicate with the hearing students and staff at Kalakaua Middle in the course of his vice-principal duties.

The school, established in 1914, has undergone several name changes over the years. It officially changed its name to Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind in 2009. John Hill/Civil Beat/2017

Ramos, an educator with three decades of experience who led schools for the deaf in New Jersey, Idaho and Arizona prior to coming to Hawaii in 2016, received an annual performance evaluation of “basic/expected” from Mahoe’s predecessor, Donna Lum-Kagawa, his first year on the job. That falls somewhere in the middle tier, with “marginal/minimal” and “unsatisfactory/unacceptable” falling lower on the scale. He received the same rating the following year.

Mahoe recommended Ramos’ demotion and reassignment to her boss, the then-DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto in October 2019 after issuing a review of “marginal” for the 2018-19 school year. Other than one meeting between Mahoe and Kishimoto in December 2019, there was no further investigation into Mahoe’s concerns before Kishimoto issued the final decision to demote Ramos on Dec. 27, 2019, the arbitration decision states.

“In effect, absent any other evidence, it appears that Kishimoto relied on the documentation provided (by) Mahoe to support the charges recommended by Mahoe,” Sakai wrote, saying the top DOE official “simply accepted (Mahoe’s) allegation without further investigation.”

Because Mahoe was the only “key witness” to the complaint she herself lodged, “an independent investigation was clearly warranted,” Sakai added. He said there were “significant avenues of inquiry that could have been conducted” on her claims, while certain complaints Mahoe had were very minor, such as Ramos’ staff making administrative requests “on the wrong-colored paper.”

While he did not specifically sustain HGEA’s contention that Mahoe was personally biased against Ramos, Sakai said the allegation was “serious enough to warrant further attention.”

Kishimoto left the DOE in July 2021 after four years on the job, opting not to go through the contract renewal process after her leadership during the pandemic came under fire from the teacher’s union and some legislators.

In a phone interview, Ramos acknowledged that he is a forceful and vocal advocate for deaf education and his style may have clashed with Mahoe’s expectations, including pushing back on DOE’s emphasis on raising student test scores and advocating for a separate deaf student assessment.

In addition to creating a website that features a personal statement and letters in support of his reinstatement, Ramos has backed legislation proposing establishment of an independent board of trustees for the HSDB, which was established in 1914.

“I do have to work with Mahoe,” Ramos said of his future. “She believes she knows how to better run the school than I do. I will continue to voice my disagreement, continue to tell her I don’t agree with her (actions).”

He said while he has nothing but positive things to say about Kalakaua Middle and its staff, it is not where his life’s work is centered.

“My life, my passion, is to work with deaf students,” Ramos said. “I lost three years of my passion — almost three years of working with deaf students. And that is very, very demoralizing.”

Read the full arbitration decision here:

 

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