More than half of Hawaii voters support a constitutional amendment to switch from an elected school board to an appointed one, but with a significant percentage of undecided voters, the proposal could fail with a combination of "no" and blank votes, according to new Hawaii Poll results.
Support in the poll for an appointed school board was broad — likely "yes" votes won out among Democrats, Republicans and independents, union and nonunion members and voters in households making less than $50,000 and more than $100,000.
But the percentage of undecided voters was significant in some groups — 19 percent among Filipinos, 15 percent among women — which means blank votes (which count as "no" votes) could still combine with "no" votes to shoot down the amendment.
Overall, 53 percent of Hawaii voters support moving to an appointed board, whose members would be chosen by the governor, while 35 percent said they would vote against the change and 11 percent were undecided.
The margin of error for the poll is 4 percentage points.
The new poll, based on telephone interviews with 608 likely voters statewide, was conducted by Ward Research for the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now from Oct. 12 to last Tuesday.
Rebecca Ward, president of Ward Research, said based on the poll results, the BOE amendment has a good — but not great — shot.
"It’s not a strong win," she said. "It’s certainly winnable for the folks that support the amendment. But they do have to be concerned about the blank votes."
Supporters of the amendment said the poll results are encouraging, but they are not celebrating yet.
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"The only result that matters is what happens on Nov. 2," said Randy Baldemor, chairman of Hawaii’s Children First, a ballot question committee that supports an appointed board. "A blank vote is still a no vote."
Baldemor added he believes there is wide support for switching to an appointed board.
"I think people see the need for change," he said. "They’re not satisfied with the status quo."
Garrett Toguchi, chairman of the Board of Education and a strong opponent of moving to an appointed board, countered the poll does not illustrate dissatisfaction in the elected board, but "goes to show how money can influence voter decisions."
Hawaii Children’s First has funded an ad campaign to garner support for the ballot question.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which opposes the appointed board, has also run television ads.
Hawaii had an appointed school board until 1966, and has twice taken up the question of whether to get rid of an elected BOE, in 1970 and 1994.
The question is back on the ballot thanks largely to frustration in the wake of teacher furloughs, which left Hawaii students with the shortest instructional calendar in the nation last school year.
Margaret Davis, 62, of Aiea said she supports moving to an appointed board because of the historically low voter turnout for BOE elections.
"It seems that we’re putting the decisions in the hands of a few people," she said. "Obviously, what we’ve got now is not working. The voters don’t know who the candidates are, and so a lot of people don’t even vote."
Hawaii Kai resident Gypsy Madden, 33, said if BOE members were appointed, "we’d know for certain that they have credentials."
But others argued there is no guarantee that appointed board members would be any more qualified than elected ones.
Bub Tanaka, 63, of Pearl City also worries that an appointed board would be "untouchable" with "no connection to the common people."
"I feel that (with an appointed board) we won’t really have a voice or avenue in which we can voice our opinions," she said, adding that an appointed board "does not mean our school system will improve."
Mililani resident Earl Skaggs, 63, agreed, saying that an appointed board would not be more accountable, but less.
"If you’ve got to run for election every two or four years, then you’re going to be more accountable to the people," he said. "It makes more sense."
The 14-member state Board of Education hires Hawaii’s schools superintendent and sets policy for the ninth-largest school district in the nation.
Hawaii voters will be asked on Election Day not only whether the state should move to an appointed school board, but will also fill six open Board of Education seats. If the constitutional amendment is approved, elected BOE members could serve just a fraction of their four-year term before the next governor’s nominees are installed.
Support in the poll for the amendment was highest among Republicans and voters whose household incomes are $100,000 or more. For the latter, the figure is 62 percent.
As household incomes decrease, so does support for the amendment: 47 percent of voters in households that bring in less than $50,000 a year said they would support the amendment, while 55 percent of voters in households earning $50,000 to $99,000 a year are behind the change.
Oahu voters showed more support for the amendment than neighbor island residents. Some 56 percent of Oahu voters said they would vote "yes" on the ballot question, while 45 percent of voters on the neighbor islands said they supported it.
Among men, 59 percent said they were in favor of the change, one-third were against it and 8 percent were undecided. Some 47 percent of women supported the amendment, while 38 percent were against and 15 percent were undecided.
Meanwhile, there was no big gap between union members and nonunion members on the question.
Some 49 percent of union members said they supported the amendment, while 55 percent of nonunion members did.
"We would have expected a bigger difference" between the groups, Ward said.
HSTA, the union that advocates for Hawaii’s 13,000 public school teachers and 25,000 retired teachers, has come out against the amendment.