From his glass-walled office on the 29th floor of the First Hawaiian Center in downtown Honolulu, Don Horner can see almost forever. While not known as one to pay attention to such things, the view from the top provides Horner a daily reminder of how far he has come and the heights to which he has risen.
Horner grew up in a no-stoplight town outside Fayetteville, N.C., and went to work with his mother in the family’s small general store when he was 13, after his father died. Today, he is chairman and chief executive officer of First Hawaiian Bank, which has a $15 billion asset base and is one of the top performing banks in the country.
"I’m proud to say I’m a product of a public school education. I was inspired by public school teachers," Horner says. "I would not be sitting in this seat today were it not for the dedication of public school teachers."
Horner, 60, has been a strong backer of education in Hawaii. He has served in advisory capacities at ‘Iolani School, the University of Hawaii-Manoa and Teach for America. Last year, he chaired the state’s Reinventing Government Task Force, which looked at various agencies including the state Department of Education.
On Tuesday, he was sworn in as Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s first selection to the state Board of Education, which is in transition from an elected to an appointed body.
Horner says a new board will operate more in a strategic capacity and leave hands-on operations of the DOE to Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi. But above all, the goal will be student achievement. If Hawaii’s students win, the state wins, he says.
"I believe public education is the great equalizer in America," Horner says. "I believe it levels the playing field so every kid, no matter where he comes from, no matter what his background is, has as much of a chance to succeed."
QUESTION: What made you decide to accept the governor’s invitation (to join the state Board of Education)?
ANSWER: I’ve always believed in public schools. But as to the question of why I took the job, part of it was my passion for public education, but a big reason was the passion I saw in the governor. I’m convinced that he’s committed to improving the public school system, as is the Senate chair (of education), Jill Tokuda, and the House chair, Roy Takumi.
I will be going off four nonprofit boards so I can devote the proper time to this. The commitment for this new board … from what I understand, the requirements are still being drafted, but I think they’re looking at a one-year term, a two-year term and a three-year term. It hasn’t been decided yet who’ll serve what terms. But for whatever length of time I have, I’m committed to the task. I’m ready to work with my colleagues, the governor, the Legislature, the unions — all the stakeholders.
Q: How do you see the board changing in terms of policy? What kinds of shifts do you see coming?
A: I can’t speak for my colleagues. I know where the Legislature wants us to go — Chair Tokuda and Chair Takumi and the governor — and that’s for the board to be more strategic and less tactical. To push more of the day-to-day responsibilities — the tactical things — back to the superintendent, and for us to take a more strategic focus.
Q: Is there any area you’d like to see get attention immediately?
A: Last year, I was chair of the (state) Task Force on Reinventing Government, and one of the things we did was to have the KPMG auditing firm do an audit of the Moanalua (High School) complex. And we discovered that up to 40 percent of a teacher’s time was spent on administrative duties. Already the classroom hours were less than the national average, (so) when you couple that with the fact that a lot of the teacher’s time is spent doing paperwork, it’s pretty clear why there’s so much frustration on the part of teachers.
Student achievement is the No. 1 strategic objective. But we can help to do that by creating a better working environment for our teachers and principals. And we need to restore public confidence.
Having said that, I’ve been involved in public education for about five years now, having served on various committees, and I’ve seen tremendous progress. I think the current board needs to be appreciated more. For example, a tremendous decision was made for the upside of public education in the fact that our state has joined a consortium of 41 other states in agreeing to a set of national standards. This has been one of the challenges, that there has not been agreement on what the targets are. I mean, how are you going to hit a target if you can’t agree on what it is?
So we’re getting closer to the point where we’ll have a clear set of metrics of what success looks like. It’s the job of the board to help the superintendent to execute, and I’m confident we can do this as well or better than any other state. The fact that this board has chosen this path, I think, is a very strategic decision. This board has also chosen a very solid superintendent in Kathy (Matayoshi), so a lot of significant pieces are already in place for us to execute.
Q: One of the issues coming up will be teacher accountability and the inherent problems of having principals belonging to unions. Have you spoken to union leaders about that?
A: There’s a big debate in the world of education about how you measure accountability, and it may seem strange but I’m not as much of a proponent of that. For someone coming from the business community, you might think that would be high on my priorities, but I believe that accountability must come internally first, not externally. When you look at teacher surveys and 40 percent of them are not satisfied, that isn’t a lack of accountability on their part … that’s a lack of leadership on our part. So first I think we ought to give them all the tools and training necessary to be successful before we put a kind of stick system in place.
I personally believe that the vast majority of our teachers are dedicated, capable, highly professional, and if we could get 40 percent of administrative duties out of their classrooms, they’ll be a lot more effective. So it wouldn’t be fair to hold them, quote-unquote, accountable, to some arbitrary standard until we do our job. … It’s not so much about pushing or pulling someone as it is about getting them to buy into the vision. And once they share the vision, then all you have to do is get out of the way and let them do what they do as professionals. I don’t anticipate any problems with unions because I think unions would agree with that.
I’ve had conversations with HGEA (the Hawaii Government Employees Association). I’ve spoken with Wil (Okabe) from HSTA (Hawaii State Teachers Association). I haven’t had the chance to talk to UPW (United Public Workers) yet, but I will. I’ve known these men for a number of years and I don’t anticipate any issues because I know they want student achievement also. They want a work environment that’s best for their members. And I think a new Board of Education will want the same thing, that our goals will be in alignment.
Q: What about school closures?
A: It’s a big issue. For almost 30 years we haven’t had to close a school until the last, recent decisions. And it’s a very difficult process and challenge. If you look back at the last 25 years, we’ve increased substantially the brick-and-mortar investments in new schools and yet the number of children that we educate has remained fairly flat. There’s been the urban shift … so now we find the schools in the urban core are at 40 percent capacity and the schools in the outlying neighborhoods are at 140 percent capacity.
At this point, I don’t know enough about the three schools they’re considering for closure to give you an educated opinion. Certainly, we’re going to have to look at the numbers, but supposedly there’s going to be $2 million in savings. Over five years, that’s $10 million. We ought to query whether we can take part of that money and reinvest it into that school that the kids are going to.
So maybe we can say to the parents, "Yes, unfortunately, we’re going to have to close your kid’s school and greatly inconvenience you. However, a mile away, is another school which we are going to invest in, and we’re going to upgrade it and try to make it even better than the school you’re at."
There are very strong emotions involved. To me, we need to have a clear process for closing schools. That process should be put in place and it should have very specific criteria that includes not only economics but student achievement. … The Board of Education, if you look at the asset value of their land holdings, it’s up to $4 billion. If there are schools that are going to be closed we need to question whether we can re-utilize those assets in order to bring revenue into the board through enterprise opportunities. Could Kaimuki use more parking? Could the Board of Education do that? Longer term, could we look at using the land for teacher housing to recruit and retain quality teachers?
But it’s all going to have to go back to the strategic questions: Does it improve student achievement? Does it help to empower and develop our staff? And does it help restore confidence to the public and our parents?
Q: Do you have a sense of what kind of people the governor is going to be looking for as he fills the board?
A: I don’t. Obviously, it’s his prerogative. I know he’s going to want a balanced group. I used to chair the (Hawaii) Business Roundtable. The superintendent was the executive director, so we’ve known each other for a lot of years. But she’s also worked in government. I think business practices make sense for running a complex operation. But having said that, the key to any organization is your common core values. Business without core values is not a good business model. It’s the job of the appointed board to set the tone of those core values, and within those core values you set the priorities.