Support grows for appointed BOE


POSTED: Thursday, March 18, 2010

Diverse advocacy groups that part ways on many elements of public education funding and policy have coalesced around the push to replace Hawaii's statewide elected school board with one appointed by the governor.

The legislative effort was fueled initially by frustration over the perceived failure of the current elected Board of Education to broker a financial settlement between the Hawaii State Teacher Association and Gov. Linda Lingle that would end the furloughs that are idling public school students 17 instructional days this school year and next.

But as the idea takes hold, proponents insist that an appointed board makes sense not only to provide clearer lines of accountability for Hawaii's public schools, but also to ultimately improve student achievement as the school system faces an array of major challenges.

Besides coping with deep budget cuts, the state Department of Education is being run by an interim superintendent and faces an array of reforms—some mandated by the federal government, some self-imposed via participation in the “;Race to the Top”; grant competition—that require significant cooperation from the teacher and principal unions to implement.

Also on tap: a complete overhaul of the DOE's antiquated and unwieldy human resources system, which is in need of serious technological updates.

All told, the argument goes, the department needs a policymaking board that is more fully engaged and in better alignment with the education department it oversees, as well as with the executive and legislative branches that have financial authority over it.

That view, reiterated by groups focused on fiscal austerity and by those who want increased educational spending, also is in keeping with the “;Task Force on Reinventing Government,”; a panel of business, executive and labor leaders that in January recommended letting voters decide whether “;to hold the governor primarily accountable for public education and improving student achievement within our public school system via an appointed Board of Education and an appointed Super- intendent of Education.”;

“;Let's not oversell an appointed board, but fundamentally, there is a convergence here that presents some real opportunities for progress and we should not pass that up,”; said Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education committee.

“;We're going to have a new governor, a new superintendent, and a new board. Let's take the opportunity to really push it, to be very bold about what our schools and students can achieve,”; said Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades). “;With a shared vision, an alignment of the board and the governor, there's a lot more potential for improvement.”;

Legislative hearings this month and last garnered testimony in favor of an appointed school board from groups such as the Hawaii Business Roundtable, the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, Hawaii Education Matters and Hawaii's Children First (the group backed by three former Democratic governors), as well as by numerous individuals.

“;I think people are at a point now, especially with the furloughs, where a change in governance would help restore confidence in the system,”; said Bill Reeves, co-founder of The Learning Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Hawaii's public schools and which in the past has tried to boost voter turnout and interest in Board of Education elections.

He testified as an individual in favor of switching to an appointed board.

“;Furloughs is the No. 1 concern. Whether you're a businessman or a teacher or a parent, what happens in the public schools affects all of us. Of course it's a revenue issue, but it's also a question of priorities, of leadership,”; said Reeves, whose group helps fund innovative programs that have a direct impact on improving student outcomes.

“;For us, when we look at governance, it's about aligning the interests and aligning the message,”; he said. “;What I think has really been lacking is a unified approach to reform at the top.”;

In written testimony on House bills 2376 and 2377, Randy Baldemor of Hawaii's Children First asserted that an appointed board would better serve the public interest by making the governor more accountable for and invested in Hawaii's public schools, drawing from a better-qualified pool of potential board members, developing a more cohesive panel less subject to electoral politics and special interests, and creating a structural alignment more cohesive to education reform.

“;We have high hopes that the future of public education in Hawaii will place the needs of children first,”; he said.

The House bills would let voters decide whether to amend the state Constitution to abolish the elected board and replace it with an eight-member school board appointed by the governor, who would draw from a list of people recommended by an advisory council (the initial list would include current elected board members.) The governor's nominees would be subject to Senate confirmation.

Members would serve a maximum of two four-year terms, which would be staggered. The appointed school board would, in turn, select the schools' superintendent.

Not everyone supports the plan, of course.

Among the most vociferous opponents are the current elected board and the Hawaii State Teachers Association, whose representatives testified that the House bills, and similar ones moving in the Senate, seek to deprive the electorate a crucial voice on educational matters.

Wil Okabe, president of the HSTA, testified that an appointed board would disenfranchise the parents and other community members who are active in the development of the school system.

And BOE chairman Garrett Toguchi disputed that an appointed board would be less political or less beholden to special interests, insisting in his testimony that “;an appointed board is inclined to be in lockstep with the governor.”;

In the case of a theoretical board appointed by Gov. Lingle, he noted, that would have meant students were furloughed even more than 17 days a year—since her initial proposal called for furloughing public employees 36 days a year.

Lingle herself has reservations about the selection process for an appointed board, despite her linking furlough funding to a DOE overhaul. She wants lawmakers to amend the current measures to reflect her own proposals, which died earlier this session, to abolish the Board of Education outright and have the governor appoint the superintendent as a cabinet-level officer.

Those ideas are unlikely to rise again, key lawmakers said.

Compared to the HSTA's outspoken opposition to scrapping the elected board, testimony from the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents roughly 5,040 school principals, vice principals, athletic directors, and educational officers at the DOE's state, complex and district offices, has been relatively muted.

“;Historically educators have supported an elected school board but that position is being evaluated. As a general rule, the electorate has remained apathetic and we've seen the results with 'blank votes' receiving the most votes,”; Leiomalama Desha, executive assistant to the executive director of the HGEA, wrote in recent testimony.

HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira was on the joint task force that recommended putting the question of the appointed school board to the people. But in a telephone interview, Desha said her testimony reflects not so much that influence but the fact that principals, as educational leaders, are open to hearing from their schools and larger communities.

“;It is quite evident that there is quite a lot of support for an appointed school board, not only within the Legislature, but with a whole range of people,”; said Desha, who knows that similar efforts have failed at the polls twice before. “;I think there is a growing support, but whether voters are actually going to amend the Constitution is yet to be seen. What we're telling our (Unit 06) members is, 'Go out into your communities and talk to people. Find out what they really want.'”;