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BOE: Elected or appointed?

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 9:24 p.m. HST, Oct 21, 2010

Hawaii voters are being asked whether to switch from an elected Board of Education to one appointed by the governor at a time of immense reform efforts for public schools.

It is the third time in four decades that the question has been put on the ballot, this time prompted by the angst and anger over teacher furloughs last year that left Hawaii students with the shortest instructional calendar in the nation and gave Hawaii's education system a black eye.

If approved, the ballot measure would bring Hawaii in line with most other states in the way statewide school board members are chosen (though most local boards remain elected), according the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization.

Hawaii voters will answer the appointed-board question while also deciding whom to elect to six of the BOE's 14 seats.

Supporters say an appointed board would be a major step forward in reforming Hawaii's public education system.

"The community is calling to have someone accountable for public education," said Randy Baldemor, chairman of Hawaii's Children First, an advocacy group. "Even though this has come up in the past, we're now at the point where we've seen enough."

Opponents, meanwhile, call the ballot question a knee-jerk and ill-advised reaction to a difficult budget-driven decision -- the furloughs -- that could have been worse if an appointed board had been in place.

Wil Okabe, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, argues that an appointed board wouldn't be a step toward reform, but would mean the loss of an independent advocate for education.


On Nov. 2, voters will be asked:

"Shall the Board of Education be changed to a board appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, as provided by law?"

Blank or spoiled votes will be counted as "no" votes.

"The Board of Education is representative of the public," Okabe said. "On the present board, there's teachers, there are former principals, former legislators."

Hawaii's public schools are in the midst of sweeping reform efforts. Initiatives are under way, and tens of millions of dollars are being spent, to turn around low-performing campuses, track and improve teacher effectiveness, and boost student achievement.

The state Board of Education hires Hawaii's schools superintendent and sets policy for the ninth-largest school district in the nation, with a $1.7 billion budget and 22,000 full-time employees, including 13,000 teachers, serving 171,000 students.

HAWAII HAD an appointed school board until 1966, and has twice taken up the question of whether to get rid of an elected BOE, in 1970 and 1994.

Though residents twice rejected proposals to return to an appointed board, other changes have been approved: The number of board members was increased to 14 from 11, the BOE election was changed from partisan to nonpartisan, and candidates face off in the primary election before moving to the general -- a change made to narrow the big field of candidates for BOE seats.

According to the Education Commission of the States, at least 32 states have governor-appointed state school boards, which oversee big-picture education policy, and which in 12 states hire a state schools chief.

Most local school boards, meanwhile, are wholly or partially elected, the commission said. An analysis by the group showed 30 states have local school boards -- which oversee school districts -- that are elected. The rest have local school boards that have all or some appointed members.

The school board situation in Hawaii is unique in the nation because the state Board of Education is also the local governing body.

But Kathy Christie, chief of staff for the Education Commission of the States, said Hawaii isn't the only place to consider a switch from an elected to an appointed school board -- or vice versa.

Over the last decade, several cities and counties have changed how they select their school board members.

Others are, like Hawaii, weighing the pros and cons of doing so.

Across the nation, Christie added, the models for choosing local school board members vary widely, from appointed to elected to a mix of the two.

Residents of San Diego are expected to take up a ballot measure next year that would expand the board for the school district, the 17th-largest in the nation, adding four appointed seats and retaining five elected ones.

The mayor would choose the school board appointees from a short list compiled by a nominating committee.

Paula Cordeiro, dean of the School of Leadership Education Science at the University of San Diego, said the proposal to add appointed members to the board is aimed at improving the body's transparency and accountability and moving forward on large-scale reform.

San Diego's all-elected school board has been around since 1931.

"This is now 2010. We have quadrupled (in size) and yet our format for governance is the same," she said.

Virginia school boards have seen a different type of change in recent years.

In the 1990s, Virginia law was changed to allow for elected school boards.

Today, Virginia's statewide Board of Education is appointed, but voters have opted in most school districts to switch to elected local boards.

Charles Pyle spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said that since switching to elected boards, voters have switched back to appointed boards in a few cases.

But most remain elected.

In Hawaii, the debate over the BOE ballot question has heated up in recent weeks. Several forums on the issue have taken place statewide, and new television commercials are urging voters to support or oppose the change.

Hawaii's Children First, a ballot question committee that supports an appointed board, has run TV commercials featuring former teachers, principals, BOE member Donna Ikeda and former University of Hawaii President Fujio Matsuda. The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which wants to keep an elected board, has aired commercials featuring teachers and a parent.

SUPPORTERS of the ballot question, including former Department of Education Superintendent Pat Hamamoto, say governor-appointed BOE members would be more accountable for their decisions and more responsive to concerns.

In effect, they say, a debacle such as teacher furloughs -- in which Hawaii students lost 17 instructional days -- wouldn't happen again.

Appointed board proponents also point to a history of low voter turnout in the BOE elections, and raise concerns about the qualifications of board members.

Pat Pedersen, former longtime principal at Waipahu High School, said a governor-appointed board would be more diverse and more experienced.

She also said the board would work more closely with the governor.

"The school system we have has so many bosses," she said. "There's just too much confusion."

But those in favor of keeping an elected board say the answer to what ails Hawaii schools isn't giving up the vote for BOE members, but increasing education about candidates and holding them to their campaign pledges.

They also argue that a governor-appointed board could quickly become mired in partisan politics or its members could become the governor's puppets. And they point out that the elected board was able to help reduce the number of teacher furlough days last school year. The governor's original proposal included 36 furlough days.

Roger Takabayashi, a candidate for an Oahu at-large BOE seat and former HSTA president, said an appointed BOE could stifle Hawaii schools, not help them.

"Naturally, (the governor's) appointees would basically support the governor," he said. "There should always be a balance of power."

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