Monday, November 30, 2015         


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New BOE era off to good start


Sweeping new choices made by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to comprise the state Board of Education are impressive and should bring needed fresh ideas to the state’s school system. Voters last year rejected the 45-year-old system of electing board members, and now all nine new board members, once confirmed by the Senate, will be expected to act wisely and well to meet the public’s high expectations.

Parents were rightly angered by last year’s teacher furloughs resulting in the nation’s shortest instructional calendar. The new board will face the difficulty of improving the school system as it deals with continuing budget constraints. But if Wednesday’s new-board announcement is any indication, at least three hopeful notes were struck: on fiscal responsibility; on a no-nonsense vision toward change; and on the need to divest from micromanaging.

Each board member will be serving free of charge, promising to decline the $100 stipend legally allowed for attending a board meeting. Also in the works is a paring of the BOE office staff, and a reduction of the board’s committees to refocus on core responsibilities.

All this, of course, toward better learning for Hawaii’s nearly 178,000 public school kids.

Elected school board members sometimes were indebted to the Hawaii State Teachers Association for its backing of their candidacies. Union leverage should now lessen, even as the teachers union’s view can be represented by board nominee Jim Williams, a former Molokai public school teacher and onetime HSTA president.

The new board is not likely to seek combat against the unions. Don Horner, who has been sworn in as board member and named by the governor as its chairman, has indicated that he will not push for improving school principals’ accountability by challenging their union affiliation. He told the Star-Advertiser last month that “accountability must come internally first, not externally.” That may be easier to say than accomplish.

Abercrombie campaigned last year in support of a 2004 state education reform law that set school spending on student need rather than school enrollment and gave more flexibility to principals on spending. That policy will help guide board decisions; so, too, will the strategies for improvement outlined in the state’s receipt of $75 million of Race to the Top federal funds.

Yes, this is Abercrombie’s board, but the new members look to be independent thinkers who are more accustomed to giving, not taking, orders. Horner is chief executive officer and chairman of First Hawaiian Bank. “Executive” also is included in past or present positions held by Williams (Hawaii Employer-Union Benefits Trust), Wesley Lo (Maui Memorial Hospital Center), Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui (YMCA of Oahu) and Keith Amemiya (University of Hawaii Board of Regents and the Hawaii State Athletic Association). Brian DeLima and Nancy Budd are private-practice lawyers, Charlene Cuaresma is a UH-Manoa administrator, and former TV news anchor Kim Gennaula is philanthropy director at Kapiolani Health Foundation.

The sharpest difference from the outgoing board members is that none of the new board nominees has served in elective office. They are not politicians, so should not be distracted by the trappings. But Abercrombie is, and voters will be watching closely that his appointed board carries through on promised improvements.

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