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Candidates spar over education

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    Gubernatorial hopefuls Neil Abercrombie, left, and James "Duke" Aiona sat last night before the start of their final televised debate.

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona said last night that he would have preferred straight pay cuts for public school teachers instead of the furloughs on classroom instruction days that embarrassed Hawaii nationally, while former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie said instructional time for students should never have been on the table.

The candidates for governor, in their last live televised debate before the November election, differed most on their approach to education policy as they covered familiar ground on the economy, the Honolulu rail project and religion.

Aiona, the Republican, said he urged Gov. Linda Lingle to bargain for pay cuts last year that would have allowed the state to achieve labor savings but would have kept teachers in the classroom. Instead, the governor and educators signed off on furloughs and then agreed this year to dip into the state’s hurricane relief fund to end teacher furloughs after public backlash.

"I said, ‘Governor, I think what the solution is is that everybody take an across-the-board pay cut and come to work every day, just like they’re doing in the private sector,’" he said.

Abercrombie, the Democrat, said he would not have agreed to furloughs on instructional days and believes the governor should have taken personal responsibility. "You should never put a child’s education on the bargaining table," he said. "We have to have our core values, I think, in place. Our core values should be the instructional day of the child. That sets the priority."

Aiona said it was easy for Abercrombie to take such a position as a "Monday morning quarterback" but that Abercrombie has not outlined how he would achieve the education savings necessary to balance the budget.

Aiona and Abercrombie also continued to disagree over Aiona’s call for an independent financial and management audit of the state Department of Education. Aiona believes a comprehensive audit is long overdue and would identify potentially wasteful spending, but Abercrombie thinks an audit is unnecessary to make improvements in the department.

Aiona said the Lingle administration could not force an audit over the past eight years without the approval of either the state Board of Education or the state Legislature. "You’ve got to know where this money is going," he said.

Abercrombie countered that Lingle and Aiona could have refused to release education spending they thought was wasteful. He also said the Lingle administration could have acted on the financial and programmatic audits conducted on the department.

"You don’t need an audit," he said. "You need a governor who is ready to move forward with the changes that need to be made in order to support the teacher in the classroom and to give confidence to the parent that their students are being educated."

The candidates took questions from a panel of KITV reporters and questions submitted by viewers during the 60-minute debate.

Aiona challenged Abercrombie to more fully explain how he would finance some of the new state programs he has proposed, such as the creation of a state Department of Early Childhood and a Hawaii Energy Authority, and restore spending on child-abuse prevention and agricultural inspectors that was cut to help balance the budget.

"This is one of the focal issues between myself and Mr. Abercrombie this whole campaign," he said. "Where are you going to find the money? You want to add a couple of departments. You want to bring back programs. You want to add more people in various programs and agencies. And that’s fine.

"If you want to do that, then tell the people where you’re going to get the money," Aiona said, without raising taxes or cutting other state programs and services.

Abercrombie said he would re-prioritize existing state spending, and questioned why Aiona and others presumed his ideas would have to cost more money.

"I will work with the budget that is there and do the re-prioritizing and do the reordering that needs to be done," he said. "You have to have a relationship with the Legislature. You have to have a relationship with the employees to see that that gets done.

"I have that. I will take the budget as it is presented, and I will make it work."

Abercrombie said he would likely sign the environmental impact statement on Honolulu’s $5.5 billion rail project if elected. He said rail is a city project and that the governor’s role is to determine whether the environmental review was prepared properly, not whether the project should move forward.

Aiona said he would wait until a financial review of the project ordered by Lingle is completed so he can determine whether rail is financially feasible.

Asked whether he would continue to allow prayer gatherings in his office at the state Capitol if elected, Aiona said he would provide people with opportunities for prayer but understands the principles behind the separation of church and state.

"I’ve always, throughout my professional career, always kept my faith — my Catholic faith — in check," he said. "It’s always been in the right context. I understand the context and the principles of separation of church and state. I’ve never crossed the lines."

Given a chance for rebuttal, Abercrombie declined and said he respected the lieutenant governor’s position. "I think that everyone’s religious beliefs and spiritual journey needs to be respected," he said. "The fact that there may be some argument as to context and how that takes place, I suppose that has some role in public policy, if in fact there was, you know, promotion of religion by government.

"But I take the lieutenant governor at his word, and I have respect for it."

After the exchange on religion, the rivals, in a sign of mutual respect, reached out and shook hands across the table before continuing the debate.


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