HONOKAA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Department of Education has begun an investigation into Marcia McClelland, the controversial principal of Honokaa High and Intermediate School who was placed on department-directed leave six weeks ago.
She has been principal at the 650-student school for the last two years.
Her critics said she has been absent from or walked out of all five school community council meetings held between February and May of this year.
She left one of those meetings in early April as one parent tried to ask her about allegations she demoted respected veteran teachers and replaced them with inexperienced ones.
The DOE put McClelland on department-directed leave in early May and now has opened an investigation that will be conducted by someone outside of the West Hawaii school complex where she works.
"The department is taking this matter very seriously. We know that there's a process. We want this process to be fair, which is why we're bringing in an outside investigator. And at the end of the day, we want this to be resolved as soon as possible," said Donalyn Dela Cruz, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association, the public school teachers' union, filed a rare "class action" grievance against McClelland this spring. In one case, the man who taught auto shop at Honokaa for 15 years -- who's been challenging the principal on several issues because he is a teachers' union leader -- was scheduled to be transferred to teach art and auto shop was removed from the school schedule. Auto shop classes were restored late in the school year, after McClelland was placed on leave.
Teachers and parents also accused McClelland of spending $60,000 in school funds on flat screen televisions and other questionable expenses without getting required approvals from a community board.
Kim Erb, the parent of a Honokaa High junior said, "We've always asked for an outside or a third party to investigate the whole situation because we felt that the (complex area) superintendent, Art Souza, was too close to the situation, whether it be to Mrs. McClelland or to her and her husband."
Erb said Souza, who is McClelland's immediate supervisor, was not the person to handle the investigation, because Erb claimed he has ignored and mishandled complaints about her for years.
Teachers complained about McClelland's alleged mismanagement when she was principal at Waimea Elementary for approximately eight years before she arrived at Honokaa, Erb said.
Miles Okumura, a Honokaa teacher who has clashed with McClelland said the state should have begun an investigation months ago, when parents and students submitted written complaints detailing alleged wrongdoing.
"I am disappointed that it didn't start sooner, but of course there is a requirement for due process. And any employee deserves that, including the principal," Okumura said.
Okumura said even though McClelland was on department-directed leave for most of May, she continued to try to run the school even in her absence. In one email she sent to school administrators on May 27, McClelland recommended certain students not participate in a school event as punishment for bad behavior.
“Are any of these students going to the June 1 event? I would suggest they don't,” McClelland wrote in the email, sent to school officials about three weeks after she was removed from her post.
But Erb, who has had children at Honokaa High and Intermediate for the last 15 years, said McClelland's behavior has set a bad example.
"When you walk out on meetings, you yell at the teachers in front of students. Poor behavior as an adult teaches poor behavior to our children," Erb said.
Erb said Souza has not protected the confidentiality of parents, teachers and students who have complained about McClelland's behavior, so the principal found out about their complaints and retaliated against those who complained about her leadership.
While a third-party investigator will conduct the investigation in McClelland, Dela Cruz said Souza will make the recommendation on any discipline but Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi will have the final say in any punishment in this case.
"We want to make sure that it's handled right, and that there isn't anyone that once this is over, whatever the outcome may be, that someone will feel it was tainted in any way," Dela Cruz said.
But other DOE administrators said this case points to a difficult problem: how hard it is to get rid of bad principals who are represented not by the teachers' union but by the Hawaii Government Employees Association.
It's relatively easy to fire school administrators found guilty of crimes such as theft or assault, DOE sources said. But it's much harder to fire someone for mismanagement or being a bad administrator, because that's not as easy to define and prove. So “problem principals” are often moved from school to school after enough complaints are made to upper level administrators, but rarely lose their jobs.
Sources said Souza has counseled McClelland and tried to help her improve, but clearly there are problems with her leadership, since parents and teachers have held community meetings and sign-waving campaigns trying to oust her, a rare move within the public school system.
The DOE is temporarily assigning a new principal, Rachelle Matsumura, the current principal at Paauilo Elementary, to Honokaa starting July 1, Dela Cruz said.