Saturday, October 10, 2015         


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How to pick a school board

Let voters select the BOE members, but expand the number of seats to improve representation

By Joan Husted


An elected school board or an appointed school board; that is the question. Some people believe that Hawaii's public schools are failing because the current elected Board of Education lacks accountability and has lost a sense of direction or purpose. They argue that the elected school board is so dysfunctional that it has to be eliminated and replaced with an appointed one.

Those who support an appointed school board postulate that if the governor appoints the school board, the governor will be accountable for public education. Today, they argue, everyone is accountable for public education; therefore, no one is accountable. Further, the governor will be able to appoint experts in business and education to advise the Department of Education. In essence, the appointed board becomes a corporate board.

What is wrong with an appointed board of education? First of all, it takes the vote away from Hawaii's citizens. An elected school board allows citizens to set the direction for Hawaii's public school system without competing with other major state issues.

In addition, an appointed board does not solve the accountability problem. Even with an appointed board regardless of its size, there are 76 legislators who are free to mandate any number of education programs (categorical funding) and often do. It is doubtful that the Legislature will give up its influence over the Department of Education. A review of the limited literature from such sources as the Education Commission of the States on the subject of elected vs. appointed local school boards does not show a clear preference of one type of board over another. It is important that any comparison be between school district boards of education and not state boards of education. Often, the two are confused in this debate.


In the Nov. 2 general election, a proposed state constitutional amendment will ask Hawaii voters if they want a governor-appointed Board of Education, instead of the elected-board process which has been in place since 1964.

Some say appointing would establish greater lines of accountability over education policy; others disagree.

So if an elected school board is still a viable entity, how can Hawaii's elected school board be improved so it is more accountable and more functional?

First of all, the current reapportionment of the board is unworkable. The Board of Education has 14 members, with seven members elected by large geographical districts and six members elected at large, plus a non-voting student member. As a result no one knows their Board of Education member(s). The six members who run at large need a campaign organization and campaign funds to equal a gubernatorial candidate. Because that does not happen, in essence, they become stealth candidates.

First, reapportion the board. My recommendation is to elect board members by senatorial districts which would result in a 25-member board of education with board elections every two years. Though some argue that would double the expense and the dysfunction, the core issue of the debate is accountability. A more accountable board will be a more functional board.

I have personally worked with a 55-member elected board and a 32-member elected board. Both worked just fine. With board members elected by a senatorial district, there is no excuse for voters not to know who represents them on the Board of Education. It allows for district town halls and meaningful contact with the elected members. And best of all, if the voters do not like the work of the school board in setting policy or hiring the superintendent they can "unelect" them.

Because public education is the school board's only focus, unlike the governor who has a number of foci, voters will know who to hold responsible for the success or failure of the public school system.

Secondly, I recommend that the Board of Education be limited to two tasks: setting policy and employing a superintendent of schools. The board would continue to hold public hearings to determine policy, but not to establish programs. This would eliminate the confusion over who manages the Department of Education.

Democracy does not work always as we want it to, but taking the vote away from the citizenry in the name of efficiency and accountability is hardly democratic. However, citizens have the responsibility to demand their elected school board continually improve through the use of the ballot.

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