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Abercrombie, Aiona refocus on schools

The candidates for governor reiterate their stands on education and appointed boards

By B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 9:26 p.m. HST, Oct 21, 2010

With polls calling the race a virtual tie, the candidates for governor butted heads yesterday over an appointed versus elected Board of Education.

Republican James "Duke" Aiona, the lieutenant governor, who supports having the governor appoint the 14-member board, accused Democrat Neil Abercrombie of being beholden to public worker unions who are supporting his campaign.

Abercrombie, the former congressman, said he agrees with the concept of an appointed board, but that it makes little difference in the end, adding that Aiona's proposal to conduct a comprehensive audit ignores the immediate needs of the state's public education system.

The question will be decided on Election Day, when voters will decide on a constitutional amendment to allow the governor to appoint board members, subject to Senate confirmation.

After arguing the point in a televised debate Thursday night, the two continued the argument yesterday with dueling news conferences.

"The lieutenant governor wants to replay the drama of the last eight years where nothing got done — endless debates about school boards and process while we ignore the students in the classrooms," Abercrombie said. "Appointed or elected school boards do not teach children.

"A governor takes responsibility," he added. "A governor sees to it that the resources are made available to the teachers and the principals and the staff to get the job done."

Aiona and running mate Lynn Finnegan argued that an appointed board would put accountability for education with the governor's office, noting that the constitutional amendment and other types of reforms they are seeking have been opposed in the past by unions, including the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

"We know what we want. We have serious questions, I have a doubt, that Neil Abercrombie will stand up to HSTA if it's contrary to what their position is. He's going to bend and he's going to cave in to union pressure," Aiona said.

Finnegan said she wondered whether Abercrombie had the "wherewithal to challenge these same people that have paid lots of money out of their union coffers to back him up."

"And I don't necessarily think that he will go challenge them the way an Aiona-Finnegan administration would challenge to get true education reform," she said.

Abercrombie said he has stood up to unions in the past when he has had to, but he would prefer to work with the unions that support him to enact reforms.

Aiona and Finnegan, meanwhile, repeated their call for a comprehensive audit of the Department of Education.

"It's not a study, it's a management tool so we can do things better," Aiona said. "I want to know where every single dime for every single school for everything we're doing is going."

Abercrombie said schools and students cannot afford to wait for an audit.

"I'm ready to move on Nov. 3," he said. "Lt. Gov. Aiona has made clear that he is not ready to take responsibility, that he's ready to blame everybody else and that he wants to do a study and an audit to avoid taking the responsibility of moving on school and children and principals and staff and seeing to it that our children get the instruction they need."

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