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School board candidates vie to lead state's reforms

Six hopefuls compete for three Oahu at-large seats, but voters might switch to appointees

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 9:30 p.m. HST, Oct 21, 2010

Reform. It's what everyone running for the Board of Education is talking about.

The six candidates, including one incumbent, vying for three at-large Oahu seats on the board have a range of proposals for how to improve Hawaii's public education system.

One suggested an overhaul of how funding gets to schools.

Several said the department needs to do a better job of evaluating and retaining teachers.

Candidate Brian Yamane, a former state representative, said he is still trying to pinpoint all that ails the Department of Education - but knows things need to change.

"I'm a little more confused than when I started," said Yamane. "Everybody wants more money. Everybody wants more resources. How do you give them more money? Is there a map they're following?"

The candidates for the board, which sets policy for the ninth-largest - and only statewide - school district in the nation, are running as Hawaii voters are also facing a proposal to switch from an elected board to one appointed by the governor.

If voters approve an appointed board on Nov. 2, elected BOE members could serve just a fraction of their term before the next governor's nominees are seated.

Regardless, whoever is voted in will join the board at a time of great change for Hawaii public schools, still recovering from the black eye of teacher furloughs of the last school year.

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

Public schools are also under increased pressure to meet rising federal benchmarks for student proficiency in math and science, and are preparing to switch to a more rigorous, nationally standardized curriculum in core subjects starting next school year.

The top three vote-getters in the general election will win four-year terms on the BOE - the

14-member body that helps drive reforms for a department with a $1.7 billion budget and some 22,000 full-time employees, including 13,000 teachers, serving about 171,000 students.

The field of six BOE candidates for three Oahu at-large seats was narrowed down from a group of 12 who ran in the primary election. Three other BOE seats will also be on the ballot: Maui, Leeward Oahu and Windward Oahu.

The Oahu at-large candidates are:

» Melanie Bailey, 48, human resources manager at Duke's Waikiki, who decided to run for the board after protesting teacher furloughs at the state Capitol.

» Kim Coco Iwamoto, 42, a BOE incumbent, pro bono civil rights attorney and affordable-housing property manager.

» Roger Takabayashi, 62, a teacher at Farrington High School and former president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

» Yamane, 63, the former state lawmaker, who now works in insurance and is a part-time employee at the state Capitol.

» Randall Yee, 51, an attorney and former Board of Education member who also serves on the Charter School Review Panel.

» Pamela Young, 54, a city government accountant and longtime Mililani Mauka/Launani Valley Neighborhood Board


Young (who is not the KITV anchorwoman with the same name) was the top vote-getter in the primary election. She said what the DOE needs is someone who can critically eye its budget and find opportunities for cost savings.

"I think we need to start looking at the top first," she said. "We should look at the DOE budget."

Young also said she understands why some are pushing for an appointed board, but is asking voters to give the elected board "one last chance to try to reform the system."

Takabayashi said he would be a teacher's voice on the board.

He said the department needs to seek innovative reform, and supports changes to how schools are funded through the weighted student formula.

Instead of principals getting a lump sum for their schools, Takabayashi would like to see the money going to "complex areas" - each consisting of a high school and its feeder schools - where principals could then sit down and hash out where the money would best be allocated.

That would allow schools to streamline services across a complex area, he said.

Yamane and Bailey agree more needs to be done to improve the work environment at the DOE.

"In any organization, not everybody is going to be great," Yamane said. "How do you give incentives to the teachers to not only stay there (in schools), but excel?"

Bailey said she believes her background in human resources would be a big benefit to the board, since she deals with work environment issues - from evaluations to incentives - all the time.

She said she is a strong advocate for parents and students. Bailey, who protested the teacher furloughs with hundreds of other parents at the state Capitol, helped author the law that mandates a minimum of 180 instructional days at Hawaii schools beginning in the 2011-12 school year.

Students lost 17 instructional days to teacher furloughs, giving Hawaii schools the shortest instructional calendar in the nation in 2009-10.

Bailey said the department needs to be studied as a collective entity to figure out where reforms are needed.

"It really is the organization and how it runs," she said. "There are many other facets to it than just the curriculum and teaching that are really important."

Iwamoto said the board needs people knowledgeable on education trends and on reform efforts at the DOE already under way. Board members need to "make sure that we fully vet the Race to the Top reforms so that kids don't get left out of our efforts," she said. "I think it's crucial that ... an incumbent, who knows where to look for the details and ask the hard questions," is on the board.

Yee said tough fiscal times require the DOE to "maximize the limited dollars the state has to allocate to education."

He also said, in a candidate questionnaire, that "helping schools and the administration reduce the amount of policies, reports, programs and other tasks that take away from classroom time" will help boost student achievement.

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