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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 10, 2010

Education crisis offers chance for change

The changing of the guard at the state's public schools coincides with crisis: budgetary shortfalls that have mired the state in operational distress, deepened by festering labor disputes.

Even so, an opening to reform that system presents itself now, and Hawai'i's elected officials should capitalize on it. Complementing the arrival of a new administration at the University of Hawai'i, it's critical that those overseeing the Department of Education take this chance to put someone at the helm who can steer our public schools toward real progress.

Patricia Hamamoto, a dedicated and resilient professional, retired as state schools superintendent; it's fortunate that she'll remain to help with the ongoing talks over teacher contract revisions to reduce furloughs on classroom days.

Also helpful for the transition, deputy superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi temporarily has taken over and has expressed interest in the permanent job.

Any shift in regimes will take sensitivity. To be successful, a new administrator has to study options before acting, said Christine Sorensen, dean of the UH College of Education.

"Change always presents opportunities," Sorensen said. "When you are going into an organization as a leader, you need to understand the context in which it operates."

Most importantly, the selection of that leader itself must be a deliberative process. The state Board of Education should take its time in the search for a superintendent, first analyzing where DOE changes are needed and identifying what skill sets would help a new superintendent achieve them.

Some would put a premium on finding a superintendent who can boost the efficiency of DOE operations overall. Such a leader could effectively tackle problems that go beyond the classroom, such as the ones identified by State Auditor Marion Higa, who last year questioned the outsourcing of management contracts to supervise construction projects.

And with money in short supply, inventive strategies for finding private partners are needed to stretch public dollars.

For these purposes, someone with a career track outside the realm of education someone like Matayoshi, who is an attorney and has ties to the business community should be considered seriously, along with those who've compiled a more traditional educators' resume.

The bottom line: The person who's a good fit for this job needs an understanding of the problems, realistic ideas for solutions and the leadership skills to bring people along on a new path.

The recent trend in school districts across the country has been to cast a wide net, searching for people with various profiles to run schools, said state Rep. Roy Takumi, House education chairman.

"I hope the board does realize that there is no big rush to hire a superintendent," Takumi said. "They should decide first what they want."

This search will be as difficult as it is critically important a challenge for any elected body, even one not as prone to discord as the school board. The public should insist on having its concerns heard in the process, and can hope that the BOE approaches the search in a sober, focused way.

The end goal everyone should keep firmly in sight is an education system from preschool through college led by administrators with integrated strategies for teaching. The reward is well worth the concerted effort.