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‘To-do list’ awaits school board, chairman says

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Five Board of Education nominees received strong support yesterday at a Senate confirmation hearing, but were also warned that the public’s expectations for the body are high and that the honeymoon period would end quickly.

“I’m very optimistic. I think they’re very grounded, very focused,” state Sen. Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai), a member of the Senate Education Committee, said at the hearing. “But we will be watching them, as will the state.”

After nearly three hours of testimony, the Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to recommend confirmation of the members, including Don Horner, who will serve as BOE chairman.

A second confirmation hearing will be held tomorrow to consider the remaining four nominees.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the nominees next Thursday.

Horner, chief executive officer and chairman of First Hawaiian Bank, told committee members yesterday that he intends to move quickly to revamp the board’s operations: everything from its scope of duties (much smaller) to how long its meetings are (much shorter).

When asked whether he foresees the need for additional legislation to help improve schools, Horner said, “At this point, we probably have more statutes from the Legislature than we need.”

He added those were likely passed because “the board has probably not been doing its job,” adding, “The Legislature stepped in to try to implement those policies. Our goal is to do our job.”

The first meeting of the appointed BOE is scheduled for April 26, and Horner said he plans to have a “full agenda.”

“We’ve got a blank sheet of paper, and that is a blessing,” Horner said. “We’re going to have a ‘to do’ list. A lot of people are depending on us.”

Senators applauded Horner’s testimony, along with what they heard from the other appointees, saying they were encouraged and optimistic by the diversity, experience and commitment on the new board.

They also said that the work of improving student achievement was long overdue and that residents would be looking to the BOE to ensure progress is made.

“Most of you realize that we have a very daunting task ahead of us,” said state Sen. Michelle Kidani (D, Mililani-Waipio). “Doing things the way that we have always done them is not always the best way.”

The BOE nominees will start their terms as the Department of Education pushes forward on ambitious reforms to boost student achievement while also facing worsening budget woes.

In November, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to get rid of BOE elections and have a board appointed by the governor.

The push for an appointed board was triggered in large part by the backlash to teacher furloughs last school year, which left Hawaii students with the shortest instructional calendar in the nation.

The other BOE nominees taken up yesterday were:

>> Former television news anchorwoman Kim Gennaula, now philanthropy director at Kapiolani Health Foundation. Gennaula, the mother of two children in public school, said she believes the pieces are in place to dramatically improve public education.

>> Wesley Lo, CEO of Maui Memorial Medical Center. Lo, who also has two children in public schools, said the DOE should explore public-private partnerships to help get schools the kind of resources they need.

>> Brian DeLima, a former Hawaii County Council member. DeLima told senators he brings a unique perspective to the board as the parent of a child with Down syndrome. DeLima became emotional as he talked about how he has fought to make sure his child, who attends a public school, gets the best education. “It takes a lot of effort,” he said, adding that he has had a “sometimes frustrating” but overall positive experience with the DOE.

DeLima, the BOE’s first student representative in 1972, said the most important thing the board can do is “support the superintendent” in her efforts to improve schools.

>> Jim Williams, retired administrator and CEO of the Hawaii Employer-Union Benefits Trust Fund. Slom asked Williams whether the board would be independent. “Yes,” replied Williams, a former teacher and the only educator on the board. “The governor has appointed us. He has faith in us, and yet there’s plenty of room for consultation with him.”

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