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Furloughs drive BOE race

Concerned advocates join board members past and present in the general election

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 5:50 a.m. HST, Sep 19, 2010

An incumbent, a city accountant and a former state lawmaker punched through a crowded field of candidates for three Oahu at-large seats on the Board of Education last night to advance to the general election.

Incumbent Kim Coco Iwamoto said she believed her message of positive change got through to voters.

"I'm humbled that voters recognize my persistent advocacy," said Iwamoto, as she watched results come in with friends. "The voters are looking for somebody who is going to keep students first."

Also at the front of the pack were former state lawmaker Brian Yamane and accountant Pamela Young, who ran on a pledge of taking a critical eye to the DOE's budget.

Young was the top vote-getter last night.

"I want to help fix our budget problems," Young said, before voters headed to the polls. "I find the budget crisis and the teacher furloughs alarming."

Last night, Yamane said he would bring an outsider's perspective to the board. "Maybe it is time to change the incumbents who are there," he said.

Twelve people were vying for the three BOE seats, and the top six vote-getters now advance to the Nov. 2 general election.

The three other candidates who will appear on BOE ballots in November are: Randall Yee, former BOE chairman; Melanie Bailey, who decided to run for the board in the wake of furloughs for public school teachers last school year; and Roger Takabayashi, former president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

"I guess now the work begins," Takabayashi said last night. "I'm just happy that the teachers out there helped me."

Candidate Roberta Mayor, former interim superintendent of the Oakland, Calif., Unified School District, said she was disappointed in her showing -- and at the significant percentage of voters who opted not to even cast a ballot in the BOE election.

"I think it's difficult to get the message out (to voters)," she said. "I don't believe a lot of the voters know much about the candidates who are running."

Iwamoto was the only at-large incumbent on the BOE ballot. Two Oahu at-large incumbents, Donna Ikeda and Karen Knudsen, did not seek re-election.

The Maui seat is also wide open, as board member Mary Cochran ran unsuccessfully for a vacant Maui County Council seat.

Last night, Maui candidates Leona Rocha-Wilson, an entrepreneur and longtime education advocate, and R. Ray Hart, a retired public school teacher, advanced to go head-to-head in the general election.

The candidates are vying for seats on the BOE at a time of big change for public education in the islands.

The Department of Education is moving forward on a host of reforms, thanks to a $75 million federal Race to the Top grant, aimed at turning around low-performing schools, improving teacher effectiveness and boosting student achievement.

In addition, Hawaii voters will be asked to decide in November whether to switch from an elected school board to one appointed by the governor.

If voters approve an appointed board, elected BOE members could serve just a fraction of their four-year term before the next governor's nominees are installed.

The BOE race also comes in the wake of significant budget cuts to Hawaii schools that -- most notably -- had teachers taking 17 furlough days last school year.

The 14-member Board of Education sets policy for a department with a $1.7 billion budget and some 22,000 full-time employees, including 13,000 teachers serving approximately 171,000 students.

All Oahu voters had the chance to vote for the three at-large seats, while neighbor island residents had the Maui BOE race on their ballots.

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