|This story has been corrected.|
Big reforms planned for Hawaii public schools and lingering anger over teacher furloughs weren’t enough to boost low voter participation in Board of Education races.
In fact, the opposite occurred.
On Nov. 2, voters will answer the question, "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?"
Nearly 43 percent of ballots for three Oahu at-large seats on the board were left blank in the primary election Sept. 18, up from 24 percent in the 2008 primaries.
And more than half of neighbor island voters didn’t weigh in on the race for one Maui board seat.
By comparison, 1 percent to 6 percent of ballots were left blank in high-profile races.
The disappointing participation rates are already being used as ammunition by advocates of an appointed school board, who say voting for board members is a flawed and outdated system.
Voters will be asked Nov. 2 whether to replace Hawaii’s 42-year-old elected board with one appointed by the governor — with approval from the state Senate — just as the governor appoints University of Hawaii regents.
The proposed change comes as the Department of Education is going through a host of reforms aimed at turning around low-performing schools, improving student achievement and boosting teacher effectiveness.
Randy Baldemor, chairman of Hawaii’s Children’s First, an organization advocating for the appointed board, said the low participation in the primaries "reinforces the failures in our current system."
He added, "In a time that I would have expected more people to pay attention to the BOE elections, instead of getting fewer blank votes, we’ve got substantially more."
Meanwhile, those who want to keep the elected board say the participation numbers might be telling a different story — not one of voter apathy, but a lack of education about the candidates.
Garrett Toguchi, school board chairman, said people want the right to choose the 14-member board, which sets policy for a department with a $1.7 billion budget and 22,000 full-time employees, including 13,000 teachers, serving 171,000 students.
But he said some voters feel "disconnected" from the board, especially if they have no direct connection to public schools.
"Organizations like Hawaii’s Children First should be looking at ways to connect the voters," he said. "They should also be looking at ways to provide access to information about the candidates."
Voters, meanwhile, appear mixed on whether an appointed board is the answer.
At Pauoa Elementary School on a recent afternoon, several people waiting to pick up their children or grandchildren said they didn’t want to give up an elected board. They also conceded that making an educated vote is sometimes tough.
John Loo, 82, said he voted for the last three Oahu board candidates as they appeared on the ballot.
"I didn’t know their names," said Loo, as he waited to pick up his great-grandson.
But when asked whether he would prefer leaving the decision to the governor, Loo said no. "The people should have the control," he said.
Bob Jenkins, father of a 6-year-old at the school, agreed. He said he did a little homework on board candidates before heading to the polls.
"I did the best I could," he said, adding that who gets elected should be "up to parents."
Genie Martin, mother of a 10-year-old, said she is on the fence but sees the advantages of an appointed board, including a better working relationship between the board and the governor. "He’ll have people who will work with him," she said.
Martin voted in the primaries and said she did feel a bit overwhelmed by the long list of candidates.
Twelve candidates were on the ballot for three Oahu at-large seats.
(In both the 2010 and 2008 primary, voters had the chance to pick up to three Oahu candidates, so they could have had up to three blank votes).
The contenders this year ranged from a former legislator to the former president of the teachers union.
The top vote-getter was Pamela Young, a city accountant and longtime Mililani Mauka/Launani Valley Neighborhood Board member.
Young wants to make sure voters know that she’s not a reporter and anchorwoman at KITV. She acknowledged that her recognizable name probably helped punch to the top of the pack in the primary, though she added that she has been actively campaigning, maintaining a website and sign-waving.
"It’s good to set the record straight and inform the voters," Young said. "We must recognize it’s a popular name. It’s a name I was born with."
Young secured 11 percent of the vote (70,436 votes) to finish ahead of incumbent Kim Coco Iwamoto (56,527 votes).
Young, Iwamoto and the four other top vote-getters advance to the general election.
Young said the voter-elected board shouldn’t be thrown out. Instead, she supports more campaigning and voter education.
"Children are our most precious and valuable resource," she said. "We need to ensure that they have an excellent education."
The elected board helps achieve that, she said.
Candidate Melanie Bailey, meanwhile, said poor participation in the primary illustrates the need for an appointed board.
Bailey decided to run for the board in the wake of teacher furloughs, which gave Hawaii the shortest school year in the nation.
She was the sixth-highest vote-getter in the primary, so she advances to the general election.
But rather than spending the next six weeks campaigning, she’s going to be advocating for the constitutional amendment.
"It’s more important that we have a good board," she said.
In the Sept. 18 primary election, Oahu voters left blank 43 percent of their possible choices in the Board of Education at-large election, in which each voter could vote for up to three candidates. A headline and article on Page B4 Thursday said 43 percent of voters left the school board ballot blank.