Legislation to merge schools fails in accountability, execution
As the father of two children in public schools in East Hawaii, I would like to submit an opposing point of view to the Star-Bulletin's May 29 editorial May 29, "Plan to consider merging schools should move forward." We agree on several points but disagree in terms of the outcome, and I submit there are substantive reasons for opposing the bill.
» First, this bill promotes a lack of accountability in government. It creates a nine-member commission that would have until 2011 to identify schools that could be closed by relocating their students to larger ones. This would create another layer of bureaucracy and a process that circumvents current decision-makers and an already existing process. The Board of Education is an elected board that is required by law to address budgeting, school population projections and school closure. The Department of Education has a number of highly paid administrators who perform the same budgeting and projection functions and who can provide the board with the necessary information and administrative support.
The commission would not be accountable to taxpayers, voters or communities. The voters don't get to nominate or have any input into the selection of commission members. There is no requirement that any of the appointees to the commission come from Hawaii island or any of the targeted communities. Unlike the federal Base Closing Commission that this legislation is based on, hearings for school consolidation or closure are not required to be held in the targeted communities. As with many already existing state boards and commissions, decisions affecting another island's community are too often heard and decided on Oahu.
More importantly, the Legislature escapes any responsibility and the public is left without a voice in the process. The bill lets the Legislature decide whether to introduce a resolution disapproving the entire list of school consolidations and closures, or the commission's recommendations are adopted. The public has no input in the Legislature's decision to introduce a resolution.
» Second, the Legislature overstepped its constitutional authority by targeting schools for closure. Article X, Section 3 of the state Constitution gives the BOE the exclusive authority to "formulate statewide educational policy." Section S26-12 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes mandates that the DOE be headed by an executive board (the BOE) with the power to hire a superintendent who has the sole responsibility for administering "programs of education and public instruction throughout the state, including education at the preschool, primary, and secondary school levels." Importantly, Section 302A-1129, HRS, specifically states, "The board may open new schools or close existing schools."
There is no reason for legislators to create a commission that interferes with and circumvents the BOE's and DOE's already existing statutory responsibilities. Legislators are the least informed governmental officials to make a decision that targets specific school communities for review or closure. This bill is a classic example of the Legislature exceeding the scope of its authority and might be unconstitutional.
» Third, this bill lacked any community input or feedback. Something as closing a school community is very important to that affected community. For state senators, like Education Committee chairman Sen. Norman Sakamoto and others, to target school communities like Laupahoehoe, Waiakea and Honokaa, without bothering to visit the schools or the surrounding communities to try to understand their importance and role in the community, is a gross dereliction of their duties and responsibilities. The targeted communities should have had the opportunity to comment on this bill, but the majority party in the Legislature did not think that our voices were important enough to be heard.
» Finally, the most appalling part about this bill is that only Oahu and East Hawaii school communities have been targeted for review and closure. No school communities on Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Kauai were targeted.
The system has an existing process for school consolidation and closure. That process is transparent and the decision-makers can be held accountable for their actions. If the current process isn't being used, that is not the fault of the process, but the fault of elected officials who are too timid or ineffectual to use the process and be held accountable for their actions.
This bill is a poor excuse for leadership, is an example of institutionalizing a lack of governmental accountability to the people that the Legislature is supposed to serve, and it is yet another example of people not from our island, unfamiliar with our communities, making decisions with a potentially devastating effect on our local communities, without having the decency, the courtesy or the courage to hear our voices.
This bill, from its origin to its final, twisted version, is a hopeless example of politicians who are completely out of touch with what is going on in the community and willing to pass off their responsibilities to someone else, or in this case a commission.
HB 2972 substitutes a sham process that is not transparent and holds no one accountable for decisions that will substantially affect the targeted communities. I oppose this bill because it absolves publically elected officials from any responsibility for what rightfully should be a public, transparent and accountable decision.
Ted Hong, a Hilo attorney, is running for the District 1 seat (Hilo-Hamakua-Waimea) in the state Senate.