Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie said yesterday that he voted for a constitutional amendment calling for a state school board appointed by the governor instead of elected by voters.
The Democratic candidate for governor has supported the concept of an appointed school board but has made inconsistent statements about the constitutional amendment on the November ballot.
The amendment would change the school board, which has been elected since 1964, to an appointed board. But Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed companion legislation that would have established the appointment process, so state lawmakers would have to draft a new bill next session if the amendment is approved by voters.
"I voted to give myself the opportunity, if I become governor, to appoint the school board," Abercrombie told reporters after voting early at Honolulu Hale. "I still have my reservations about the capacity for that to happen, but I understand that the Legislature has indicated that they’ll expedite the necessary implementing legislation."
Abercrombie told the Star-Advertiser in July that he opposed the amendment. His campaign staff told the newspaper in September that the former congressman was no longer taking a stand on the amendment after Lingle vetoed the companion legislation, which he opposed. But then Abercrombie said at a debate on PBS on Thursday that he again opposed the amendment.
One of his main objections, he said Thursday and at a news conference on Friday, was that it could take the Legislature as long as four years to pass a new bill establishing the appointment process. He said he wanted to make improvements to education immediately after being elected, not relive the debate over the structure of the school board, which he believes does not matter.
"Appointed or elected school boards do not teach children," he said Friday.
But Abercrombie said yesterday that he had received assurances from lawmakers that they would move rapidly on a new bill. While he said he still has concerns about a potential leadership vacuum on the school board during the time between when voters approve the amendment and the implementing legislation becomes law, he believes an appointed board is the best route.
State Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Momilani-Pacific Palisades), chairman of the House Education Committee, said Abercrombie "obviously misspoke" when he suggested that it would take as long as four years for lawmakers to act. He said he assured the Abercrombie campaign that if he is re-elected, he would move a bill at the start of next session if voters back the amendment.
"We have an obligation to fulfill their desires," Takumi said.
Takumi also said, however, that the bill he would introduce will likely be identical to the one Lingle vetoed and which Abercrombie opposed. The bill would have created a seven-member selection advisory council to recommend school board nominees to the governor. The governor’s school board appointments would be subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
The process would be similar to the Regents Candidate Advisory Council, which screens the governor’s nominees to the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, and the Judicial Selection Commission, which screens the governor’s judicial nominees. Lingle and Abercrombie believe the governor, not an advisory council, should screen school board nominees.
The bill would have also reduced the size of the school board to 10 members from 14, including one nonvoting student member.
Takumi said Abercrombie would have the chance to express his concerns about the appointment process during committee hearings on the bill.
Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the Republican candidate for governor, has supported an appointed school board as a step toward giving the governor greater accountability over education. Like Lingle and Abercrombie, he opposed the bill establishing the appointment process.
Aiona accused Abercrombie of flip-flopping on the constitutional amendment.
"An appointed school board will improve accountability by giving voters a direct line of responsibility to the governor, and my opponent has clearly wavered on whether or not he wants to be held responsible," Aiona said in a statement. "He flip-flopped on the issue. Our opponent is doing the right thing now that the pressure got to him, but he has not demonstrated that he’s ready to work with others to reform public education."