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Wednesday, October 22, 2014         

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Abercrombie can be choosy when it comes to picking BOE

By Susan Essoyan

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Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie will get to appoint every member of the new Board of Education, but how much leeway he has in choosing candidates is still up in the air.

Will he be able to name whomever he likes, subject to approval by the Senate? Or will he have to draw from among candidates presented by a selection council, in the same fashion that judges are appointed?

House Education Chairman Roy Takumi leans toward the latter and plans to introduce a bill to that effect at the start of the legislative session in January. Takumi supports an appointed board and was the author of the bill that put the question before voters.

"I think people feel a little queasy about allowing the governor to unilaterally appoint judges," he said. "Similarly with the Board of Education."

The concern people have, he said, is that leaving it solely to the governor's discretion could "unnecessarily politicize the appointments, so why not have a buffer, an impartial, objective group?"

Voters issued a clear mandate on Election Day that they want to switch from an elected school board to one appointed by the governor, subject to approval by the Senate. More than 57 percent chose an appointed board, with 38 percent opposing it. Five percent left the question blank, which counted as "no" votes.

Since it will be the first appointed board, Abercrombie will have a chance to name every member. After that, because of staggered terms, governors will be able to choose only some of the members at any given time. The governor-elect says the next step is up to legislators, and he looks forward to working with them.

"Neil believes the responsibility of determining the process of appointing the BOE is left up to the state Legislature, and he will work with them and what they determine," said Laurie Au, spokeswoman for Abercrombie.

Legislators approved a bill earlier this year that would have set up an advisory council to select a limited number of Board of Education candidates for the governor's consideration. But it was vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle. She objected to the process as too restrictive, subject to manipulation by special interest and secretive because the council's meetings would not be open to public scrutiny.

"I propose that the next governor offer implementing legislation that ensures the Board of Education members are selected directly by the governor, allowing for a fair, open and accountable process that this critical task deserves," Lingle said.

The six members elected to the board on Tuesday and their colleagues are expected to serve until a new board is appointed, which is likely to take at least several months. Takumi said he hopes to get a bill passed early in the legislative session to expedite that shift.

"I don't believe the voters want us to wait until May, then the governor signs it and the committee meets and so on," he said. "I think they want us to move with all deliberate speed -- not be hasty, but not wait until eight or nine months from now."

The push for an appointed board came in part as a backlash against Furlough Fridays, which shuttered Hawaii's public schools for 17 Fridays in the last academic year for lack of money. The Board of Education and the governor signed off on the deal along with the teachers union. Voters decided last week it was time to shake up the way policy is made for the public school system.

"One of the things we saw from Furlough Fridays was that our governing entities were not aligned," said Randy Baldemor, chairman of Hawaii's Children First, which pushed for the appointed board. "You had this finger pointing back and forth. Who lost out? The children."

Proponents argue that a board appointed by the governor will be more united, better qualified and more accountable.

"This will create greater accountability and improve the selection process for choosing leaders of our educational system, and finally align our governing entities so that they can go all out for the interests of our children and our community," Baldemor said.

Pat Pedersen, former principal of Waipahu High School, said an appointed board will put educational leaders on the same track in the effort to improve Hawaii's public schools, starting "right at the top with our governor."

"We have so many bosses right now as a department," she said. "With an appointed board, we can limit them in terms of everyone being accountable and in alignment with the goals."

Pedersen said the new board needs people with leadership skills and expertise in fields relevant to education, such as information technology or literacy development. The University of Hawaii's Board of Regents is a good model, she said.

"The university has been quite successful with their appointed board," Pedersen said. "These individuals that serve on the board truly understand the issues and are able to function quite well."

The UH regents used to be appointed directly by the governor, but voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2006 to require the governor to choose from candidates screened and proposed by an advisory council. The move followed concerns that the process had become too political, with the governor nominating members of her campaign team as regents.

The previous bill describing an appointed Board of Education called for 10 members that included representatives from the neighbor islands and a nonvoting student member, but did not specify other restrictions. It also had a provision to ensure that elected members of the existing Board of Education be included among those considered for the first appointed board.

Board Chairman Garrett Toguchi said an appointed school board would be less likely to challenge the governor over budget cuts and stand up for students. He also dismissed the idea that an appointed board would be more accountable than an elected board, which has to answer directly to voters.

"There are already 150 boards and commissions that the governor appoints," Toguchi said. "The governor doesn't hold any of them accountable, and no one holds the governor accountable for them."

The Hawaii State Teachers Association said it hoped that Hawaii's Children First, the ballot committee that waged an expensive advertising campaign for an appointed board, would live up to its name.

"I'd like to see if that particular organization who started this will be able to continue that message of keeping children first," said Wil Okabe, union president. "I hope it wasn't just one issue and they're going to be providing support for public education."






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