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Friday, October 31, 2014         

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School board question spurs spending surge

Nearly $600,000 has been raised by both sides as the general election approaches

By Mary Vorsino

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Supporters of a constitutional amendment to switch to an appointed school board have far outspent those opposing the change, according to filings with the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Hawaii's Children First, a ballot question committee that supports moving to an appointed state Board of Education from an elected one, has spent about $504,000 so far this election season, largely on television, radio and newspaper ads.

Much of that has come from a single donor: Hawaii resident Bill Reeves, a philanthropist, investment banker and founder of The Learning Coalition.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which has taken the lead role in urging people to vote "no" on the question, estimates it has spent about $80,000 on the issue. Most of its spending, too, has been on advertisements.

Political analysts say the spending is high for a constitutional amendment, which generally does not generate media blitzes.

There are exceptions, though. Go Rail Go spent $349,000 in 2008 to support a ballot question asking Oahu voters whether they support moving forward with a rail transit system. Stop Rail Now spent $158,000. The Honolulu Charter question passed, 53 percent to 47 percent.

As the general election approaches, spending on the school board question is increasing.

Wil Okabe, HSTA president, contends the ballot battle has become one of "David versus Goliath."

"We don't have a lot of money to fight this particular issue," he said.

Okabe added the estimated $80,000 it has spent to oppose the question is part of a grass-roots campaign, which includes visiting schools and sending out "friend-to-friend cards."

The union's total spending on all election efforts so far this year was about $503,000, according to campaign filings.

Meanwhile, Hawaii's Children First said it has received broad support.

"What the HSTA wants to focus on is the resources that are being spent, rather than focusing on what's actually important, which is what's the best way to serve the children and the community," said Chairman Randy Baldemor.

The biggest donor to Hawaii's Children First is Reeves, who has donated $362,600, according to the campaign filings through Oct. 18. Those donations came in chunks ranging from $1,600 to $175,000.

Other donors include Ohana East Hotel, Bright Light Marketing, Bank of Hawaii and First Hawaiian Bank.

Reeves said he and his wife have been supporting Hawaii's education reforms for years, and have in the past funded professional development for the Board of Education.

He decided to get involved in the ballot question after hearing educational leaders such as former Superintendent Pat Hamamoto and Farrington High School Principal Catherine Payne support an appointed board.

"There's absolutely nothing in it for me," Reeves said. "I've got no interest in being on the board."

A recent Hawaii Poll found 53 percent of voters supported switching to an appointed BOE, while 36 percent opposed it and 11 percent were undecided.

Neal Milner, a University of Hawaii political science professor, said spending on the BOE ballot question does appear high.

For those advocating for an appointed board, "this is about making the educational system better through better, more efficient practices."

Jean Aoki, legislative liaison for the League of Women Voters, which has in the past supported an elected board, said, "For the amendment, I really hadn't expected that kind of spending. Maybe letters to the editor. Not real money."





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