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BOE forum fields furlough questions

Several candidates say this "low point" is why they are running

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 12:28 a.m. HST, Aug 26, 2010

Teacher furloughs on instructional days are gone, but they were not forgotten at last night's Board of Education candidates' forum.

At times, furloughs dominated the discussion, and several candidates called the furloughs a "low point" that prompted them to run.

"My child was furloughed," candidate Kathy Bryant-Hunter told attendees. "Didn't make me happy. Made him happy. For me it was really a call to action."

Candidate Todd Hairgrove said during the forum, "My No. 1 priority is to make sure there are no Furlough Fridays next year and the years after that."

About 100 people turned out for the two-hour moderated debate at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, the only one scheduled for the Board of Education race.

Ten of 12 candidates running for three Oahu at-large BOE seats were there, answering questions on everything from what makes a good superintendent to how to improve school facilities to what needs to be done to recruit and retain effective teachers.

Attendees said they came out to hear what BOE candidates would do to improve Hawaii's school system -- and ensure teacher furloughs remain history.

And some were disappointed at the turnout, whose numbers included a fair number of campaign volunteers and family members of candidates.

"It's like the voters need something to spur them into action. I think the spark is gone," said Deanna Espinas, a grandparent of two children in public schools, alluding to the hundreds of people who came out to protest teacher furloughs.

After the forum, Espinas said she was impressed with the candidates and excited about prospects for improving education.

Mark Enomoto of Waialae Iki said he decided to attend after growing frustrated when he could not find information about the BOE candidates online.

"If Google can't find something, that really is an odd sign," he said.

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

The furloughs gave Hawaii schools the shortest instructional calendar in the nation and ignited a firestorm of protest.

THE CANDIDATES also are vying for BOE seats as Hawaii schools brace for higher progress goals this year for reading and math proficiency under No Child Left Behind, shift to more rigorous national curriculum standards next year and consider tougher graduation requirements.

The board sets policy for the public school system and hires a superintendent -- something it is in the process of doing now.

Among the candidates, opinions varied on what skills the Hawaii schools head needs.

"The new superintendent will have to be either Superman or Wonder Woman," quipped candidate Marcia Linville, a librarian.

Melanie Bailey, a parent who decided to run for the BOE in the wake of furloughs, said last school year was the "lowest point" for education in Hawaii. A new superintendent would have to be a strong administrator and make "fiscally intelligent decisions," she said, to improve Hawaii schools.

The BOE candidates also had different opinions about how to improve student achievement.

"We should set a high standard," said Noela Andres-Nance. "If you set a high standard, give them the tools."

But Roger Takabayashi, former president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said setting goals too high is hurting some students and frustrating teachers.

"We cannot keep adding things to the teacher's plate," he said. "Teachers are getting burnt out."

Save Our Schools Hawaii, formed largely by parents to protest the teacher furloughs, co-sponsored the debate yesterday and will hold similar gatherings for candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.

The group is pushing to get more people interested in the BOE race in hopes of generating more public discourse on how the schools system is governed.

"I think the main idea is just bringing awareness to the public," said Lois Yamauchi, a parent of two children in public schools and a member of SOS Hawaii. "We all need to begin paying attention."

Meanwhile, Hawaii voters will decide in November whether to do away with the elected board. It is unclear how long BOE members elected this year will serve if an appointed board is approved, but it could be just a few months.

Some candidates were torn on the idea of an appointed board, while others strongly supported it.

"Many people don't even know who is running for the Board of Education, let alone what qualifications they have," said candidate Roberta Mayor. "But I really hesitate to give up the right to vote" for the BOE.

Bryant-Hunter is taking a wait-and-see approach, and said she is interested to see how many people vote in the BOE race.

"I'm going to look really closely ... and see if that apathy changes."

In addition to the at-large seats, there are three other open BOE seats -- one each for Maui and Central and Windward Oahu.

CORRECTIONS: Organizers estimate about 100 people turned out throughout the night at a Board of Education forum Monday at the University of Hawaii. A previous version of this story Tuesday estimated the crowd at 40.

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