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Hawaii schools superintendent Christina Kishimoto stepping down in July when contract ends

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Superintendent Christina Kishimoto announced today that she will step down on July 30 after four years at the helm of Hawaii’s public schools, rather than seek to extend her contract.

The decision follows a tumultuous year for the schools as Kishimoto navigated through the coronavirus pandemic, juggling often-conflicting demands from teachers, staff and parents in a constantly shifting health landscape.

“After much consideration and reflection, I will not be seeking a renewal of my contract,” Kishimoto wrote in a message to Gov. David Ige, the Board of Education and public school employees this afternoon. “I am committed to serving out the remainder of my term.”

“It has been my great privilege to serve the students of Hawaii the past four years,” she wrote. “This is a generation of students that will lead as global change-makers with great aloha.”

Her move comes shortly after the two unions that represent public school teachers and principals announced they opposed keeping her on the job after her contract expires. They testified against her at a Board of Education meeting last week, criticizing her leadership and faulting her for poor communication and failing to consult with them.

The board hired Kishimoto in 2017 on a three-year contract with an annual salary of $240,000, which later was extended by a year.

“Dr. Kishimoto has dedicated herself to public education in Hawaii since she joined us in 2017,” Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne said today. “She has strongly advocated excellence for all students with a special understanding and emphasis on equity for our most vulnerable youngsters.”

“While she has decided to move on, I appreciate her willingness to focus on the immediate and critical tasks we face as we move toward the end of the pandemic and safely open schools to all students,” Payne said.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Kishimoto and the board have had to deal with widespread concerns about safety measures on campus, distance learning, and how students are faring academically and socially.

“I’m proud of the work that principals and teachers and staff, everyone, is doing together,” she said. “Nothing about this has been easy.”

Kishimoto said she will be focusing on next quarter, summer school and laying the groundwork for the next academic year.

Deborah Bond-Upson, a board member of Parents for Public Schools Hawaii, said she appreciated the lead time Kishimoto was giving the board to allow for a “graceful transition.”

“I think so many of us know how hard all the administration has been working, and the teachers and the parents,” Bond-Upson said. “It’s been such a taxing time… It’s so important that we be able to focus on the big changes needed to optimize learning for all our students. I think that if we were having a controversy about her continuing that would have distracted from the great work we need to do.”

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which had worked closely with the superintendent on issues like boosting pay for shortage positions, soured on her during the pandemic. It claims she supported teachers only when forced to do so by the Board of Education — including delaying the start of the school year to train them on distance learning and decisions to mandate mask use and six-foot distancing.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association Unit 6, which represents principals, stressed the need for consultation and feedback from staff on the front lines at schools, as well as clearer guidance and more support from the superintendent.

Kishimoto had made a point of empowering school leaders to make their own decisions. But some sought stronger and more consistent direction, such as on health and safety measures across campuses.

“We focused on equity, we focused on innovation and we focused on empowerment,” she said. “And we moved. We worked hard during these past few years and made some important changes.”

The Board of Education rated Kishimoto as “effective” overall in her most recent evaluation last July, after schools abruptly switched to “distance learning” in March to prevent the spread of coronavirus. She was listed as “highly effective” for her “equity advocacy” but “marginal” on “operations, resource and personnel management.”

The issue of Kishimoto’s job blew up publicly when Human Resources Chairman Dwight Takeno placed an item regarding her contract on the March 4 committee agenda without informing her. The HSTA then held a press conference to oppose the contract extension.

Kishimoto said the issue quickly became a major distraction from doing her job and she decided to cut the public debate short because it would reflect poorly on the district.

“I have spent four years talking about the power and promise of public education, and talking about reframing how we think about schools as hubs of innovation for business and industry,” Kishimoto said. “I don’t want that momentum to stop.”

“I am all in and all heart around this work for the students here in Hawaii,” she added. “What matters to me is what will work best for them.”

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