Kathryn Matayoshi


POSTED: Friday, January 15, 2010

Never let it be said that Kathryn Matayoshi shrinks from a challenge. After only six months with the state Department of Education, the Hilo native finds herself leading the nation's 10th-largest school district during a painful cost-cutting era.

The 52-year-old attorney was catapulted into the top job by the abrupt retirement of Pat Hamamoto, who had recruited her as deputy superintendent last July from the Hawaii Business Roundtable, where she was executive director.

As deputy, Matayoshi spearheaded the DOE's pending request for highly competitive federal education grants known as “;Race to the Top.”; Now, as interim superintendent, she oversees the statewide public school system — 258 schools serving 172,000 students — as it copes with Furlough Fridays that have slashed class time and faces more budget cuts over the next two years that could force layoffs and school closures.

She has experience running a state department during a fiscal downturn, albeit on a smaller scale, having served as director of the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs from 1995 to 2002.

The lifelong volunteer grew up in a family that values public service, an example set by her parents, former Big Island Mayor Herbert Matayoshi and community advocate Mary Matayoshi.

She went to the mainland for college after graduating from Hilo High School, earning a law degree from the University of California's Hastings College of Law.

Her husband, Tod Tanaka, also is an attorney. They have a 19-year-old son at UC-Berkeley and a 14-year-old daughter at 'Iolani School, Tanaka's alma mater.

QUESTION: How critical is it to end the furloughs this school year?

ANSWER: I think it's very critical. It's the top-of-mind issue for people and for parents. I think it not only has been detrimental for the students but, overall, in terms of the confidence in the public education system and in our public education leadership.

Q: You've been described, particularly by (former) Gov. Ben Cayetano, as someone who streamlines systems and operations. What are you streamlining in the DOE?

A: The simplest way to describe it is that I will be successful if teachers and principals have more time to spend on teaching and learning and less time spent on paperwork. ... So all of those kinds of things that we did at the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs are very similar — looking at overlapping and duplicative forms, processes, reports that need to be generated but are not used, perhaps, or can be combined with others. You need to look at the effectiveness of all aspects of your operation. I think at the DCCA we were able to do that. We were a much smaller department. It was only about 425 employees and the DOE is much, much, much larger. So the issues will be more complex but the approach is similar.

Q: Do you believe the department receives adequate state funding?

A: No. I'm looking at the budget reduction and restrictions over the past year and looking at the upcoming year. We have been reduced very, very significantly, and our current annual budget, while still very large, is now $1.7 billion. It used to be $2.4 billion, as recently as, I think, two years ago. So we've seen a very, very significant reduction in our budget. And the $1.7 billion is all methods of funding; the general fund portion is $1.2 billion. ... We are looking at $473 million in reductions over the next two years.

Q: Where would (those cuts) come from?

A: We've had a number of options that have been discussed with the (Board of Education) and, really, it's the board's determination over how the budget reductions will be made. We just presented that (Wednesday) to Ways and Means at our budget briefing. Some (options) include reducing programs, increasing class size, unfortunately layoffs, and the last is the school closures and consolidations. Those are some of the big potential ways to reduce the budget.

Q: What about raising the excise tax? Is that something you support?

A: We have not considered an increase in the excise tax. That would require legislation and the governor has indicated she is not interested in increases in taxes and we don't want to rely on something that may not come to pass.

Q: You didn't come up through the ranks as an educator and administrator. Is that a disadvantage, as some have claimed, or do you see it as a potential advantage?

A: I think it's an advantage, so long as our leadership team is balanced with experienced educators. (She went on to praise veteran educator Ronn Nozoe, her acting deputy superintendent.)

What I'm bringing to the table is really what Pat Hamamoto saw in asking me to join the DOE, and that's trying to bring that outside view on a very large organization, bring a fresh pair of eyes to processes and systems that have been around for a very long time and try to make decisions that would streamline operations, make it more efficient. And frankly I was in the state government, under Gov. Cayetano, when we were facing very significant budget reductions as well. I've done some things under similar circumstances where that experience might help the DOE now.

Q: Some school board members weren't happy with the way Pat Hamamoto resigned, or the way (BOE Chairman) Garrett Toguchi handled it, or with the way you were named, saying they were left out of the loop. Does the internal strife impede you in your work?

A: I think that remains to be seen. Certainly, we have things we need to focus on. We have work we need to do, and anything that distracts us from that work we'd prefer not to have.

Q: In exchange for “;Race to the Top”; funding, the federal government is demanding a lot more accountability from unionized teachers. Is HSTA (the Hawaii State Teachers Association) on board with those reforms?

A: We've had ongoing discussions with HGEA (the Hawaii Government Employees Association, ) which represents principals) and HSTA on the “;Race to the Top.”; ... As a sign of their support, HGEA and HSTA have both provided letters of support for the application.

Q: It makes the furloughs all the more a shame because in what I've been able to read of the (grant) requirements, in so many other ways Hawaii is well positioned, in having standards, in having funding equity, in having at least stated support from its unions.

A: I think there are some things about Hawaii that are not appreciated locally. For example, our standards are very high. The push from the Obama administration has been for internationally benchmarked standards. We've already done alignments with standards for the American Diploma Project and, in looking at the initial standards that are coming out, we are not far off. And that's very good news.

Q: Getting back to the furloughs: How hard did the DOE try to avoid them? I ask because there's a persistent suspicion among some parents that the DOE, BOE and HSTA wanted parents and schoolchildren to feel the pain, so to speak, so they would support a general excise tax to fund education. Can you address that?

A: I know that certainly the department did not want furloughs. ... In Ways and Means, as we were discussing our budget request, we went through the kinds of reductions the department has gone through the last few years and it is so significant. It's hard to almost imagine how we are going to cope with the coming year, given the magnitude of the reduction.

I think the other thing is that across the nation, all districts are seeing the same kind of economic crisis hitting their schools. California has laid off thousands of teachers. Some states have dramatically raised class sizes. Every school district is facing decisions that nobody wants to make, but the money isn't there. And so we need to make, I guess, the best we can of it, and the decision at the time here, following actually the governor's original suggestion, was the furloughs.

Q: I can't help thinking: Why would you want this job right now?

A: I think my parents asked me the same question, and my family. I'm a product of public schools and I believe that one of the great things about Hawaii and about the United States is this opportunity to receive an education and improve your life. The challenges that we are facing in the department are ones that I can contribute to solving. And that is a very, very satisfying and rewarding thing.

My family has a history of public service, and maybe you just grow up in it, but it seems that when you do something, when you're making a real difference, then maybe all the difficulties and the challenges are worth it.