As the Board of Education prepared to privately interview its two selected finalists for schools superintendent Thursday, community members and education groups complained to board members that the selection process was not transparent and lacked public input.
Others called on the board to reopen the search to consider local candidates.
Thursday’s BOE meeting was the first opportunity for formal public testimony on the candidates — Linda Chen and Christina Kishimoto — since a search committee made up of three board members recommended the finalists April 26. The women spent the past week and a half in Hawaii, meeting privately with stakeholder groups that included the teachers union, nonprofits, special-education advocates and Department of Education leadership.
Chen, 46, who started Baltimore-based Ikigai Educational Consulting last year, formerly served as chief academic officer for Baltimore City Public Schools. Kishimoto, 48, has been superintendent and chief executive officer of Gilbert Public Schools in Arizona since 2014.
Retired public school principal John Sosa, who is executive director of the Education Institute of Hawaii, said teachers and principals have asked his organization for information on the finalists, but “unfortunately, we have been unable to provide meaningful information due to the limited dialogue that has been made public.”
He said a brief question-and-answer session the BOE arranged with the candidates and local media last week has been the only glimpse into the candidates’ positions for the general public.
“If we were asked to evaluate this process … the conclusion would be at a minimum, ‘Please make some adjustments’ so those that the system serves feel comfortable with the decision made,” Sosa told BOE members. “We are fully aware you serve as voluntary members with limited resources. But teachers, principals and the public look to you to lead this system, to guide significant improvements. You’re on the verge of making a final decision on who will be the face of this system.”
Corey Rosenlee, president of the 13,500-member Hawaii State Teachers Association, said the union couldn’t recommend either candidate. He said the union is disappointed that a local candidate or someone with strong Hawaii ties didn’t make the shortlist of finalists.
“We feel knowledge about our unique cultures and our statewide school system is important for our next superintendent to be effective,” he testified.
He added that the union would have liked to help interview the initial pool of eight semifinalists, whose names the board has not released.
“Lacking complete information makes it difficult for HSTA to know whether these two candidates were the best applicants to be the next superintendent,” Rosenlee said.
A dozen people submitted written testimony, mostly opposed to both candidates, including Caroline Ward Oda, former head of school for St. Andrews Schools, who said the candidates’ backgrounds raised concerns for her.
“In light of the red flags in the two finalists’ experience, the search should be re-opened, local candidates reconsidered, and a wider field of finalists selected,” she wrote.
Before relocating to Arizona, Kishimoto had been superintendent of Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, where the school board in 2013 voted to reject her request for a contract extension, citing concerns about a lack of communication and the pace of school improvements being too slow. Kishimoto has defended her performance in Hartford, saying she’s a bold leader who had to make tough changes in a high-poverty district.
Chen, meanwhile, resigned last year from her position with Baltimore City Public Schools, where she had been brought in to lead the academic office by the district’s controversial former CEO, who stepped down less than two years into a four-year contract over criticism that he lacked vision and direction.
Donna Whitford, principal of Lokelani Intermediate School on Maui, submitted opposing testimony, saying she felt comfortable speaking up only because she is retiring next month after more than 40 years in the DOE.
“The backgrounds of the two state superintendent finalists chill me to the bone,” Whitford wrote. “Again we are hoping that someone who does not understand the unique diversity and cultural needs of Hawaii will lead us into the light. Well, the blind can’t see the light.”
Joanne Swearingen, a retired DOE teacher and administrator, also called on the board to reopen the search.
“There are several qualified candidates who have attended public schools, taught in public schools, and/or administered public schools,” she wrote. “I don’t understand — nor does most of the general public and certainly those in the school system — why the two finalists are from out-of-state.”
After the public testimony portion of the meeting, Chen and Kishimoto, who had not been in the boardroom, were brought in separately to give brief statements. None of the board members asked the candidates any questions in the public session.
In her remarks, Chen emphasized her collaborative leadership style and a commitment to always put students first.
“Whether DOE, charter or independent schools, we can all learn from the very best teachers and principals and scale innovative practices in a shared effort to provide the very best for all of Hawaii’s children, while at the same time eliminating achievement gaps,” Chen said. “We must really differentiate our support and approach to account for the diverse needs in every community. We must always put students at the center of everything that we do and every decision that we make.”
Chen, who previously worked as a teacher in Seattle and New York City public schools, contends she has the right values and experience for the job. She previously worked for Boston Public Schools as deputy chief academic officer and also was assistant superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia.
In her remarks, Kishimoto spoke to the opportunities presented by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which aims to devolve federal control over public education back to the states.
“With this question about the empowered-school model, the questions come to mind about how will it function, what components are essential, and what work that we may be currently doing is no longer essential and needs to be put aside so we can focus on having the greatest impact in the classroom,” Kishimoto said.
“This is the design and implementation work that lies ahead of us as guided by Hawaii’s blueprint and the Department of Education/Board strategic plan. It’s also guided by this opportunity to transition to the new guidelines of ESSA and the opportunity to focus on closing the achievement gap for our neediest students and maximizing those funds to students who need it most.”
Kishimoto said she’s ready to take on the challenge. “Hawaii is poised to deliver on that vision to be a public school district of excellence by working together. We understand collectively in this community, in this state, that there is tremendous work to be done,” she said. “I am ready to be part of this great team to get this hard work done.”
Before adjourning the public session and going behind closed doors, BOE Chairman Lance Mizumoto said the board would individually interview the finalists and then deliberate. He said the selected candidate will not be named until she is under contract, adding that the board does not anticipate an announcement “for at least a couple of weeks.”