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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 29, 2010

Time for better way to pick school board

The task of improving Hawaii’s school system is a long-term project, with no simple route to success.
But recent experience has highlighted what many have been saying for a long time: Change is needed, starting at the top.

The relentless squabbling among the many elected and appointed officials who run Hawaii’s schools — culminating in furlough Fridays — show how poorly our students are served when a school system is run by too many chiefs pulling in too many different directions. Effective, focused strategic goals becomes difficult, if not impossible, to reach.
It’s time to give serious thought to building a smaller, smarter, more cohesive team of education professionals to run our schools. This means three changes: a school board appointed by the governor; a superintendent appointed by the board; and a governor held accountable for those choices.
With numerous proposals on the table and public frustration peaking, the timing seems right for lawmakers in this legislative session to begin debating structural reforms, changes that will require voters to approve an amendment to the state Constitution.
Gov. Linda Lingle, in her final year in office, has proposed an amendment to make the superintendent a Cabinet-level position appointed by the governor. She also proposed abolishing the Board of Education altogether, although she has said she’d consider an appointed board.
Former Hawaii governors George R. Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano, in today’s Focus section, argue for an appointed board that chooses the superintendent. They believe that the elected school board is a victim of low voter turnout in which interest groups exert too much influence, which means its democratic quality is largely illusory.
These ideas should be heard at the state Capitol this session. A final decision should involve whoever is elected governor this fall before the details are fleshed out.
Both Lingle and her three predecessors believe that one of the school system’s biggest problems lies in fragmented lines of accountability, and they’re right. The superintendent, school board, Legislature and executive branch all play roles in the governance and funding of schools, and often hamper progress as they compete for influence.
Lingle believes making the superintendent a Cabinet member, like any other state department head, would mean the buck would stop at the governor’s desk. But politicizing the job would be a mistake. The superintendent is the one most directly responsible for carrying out school plans and initiatives, which requires executing long-term strategies that don’t fit neatly into a four-year election cycle. If the school board names the superintendent, there would be accountability and a better chance for continuity at the helm of the Department of Education.
Many jurisdictions have weighed the choice between elected and appointed boards. The debate among several of them highlights a key problem: that many highly qualified people hold back because they don’t want to endure the strain and cost of a campaign.
Hawaii’s shamefully low voter turnout also undercuts the democratic ideal of a board chosen by the population at large. In a low-visibility race such as the school board, those who have campaign resources and backers tend to come out on top, not necessarily those with the best qualifying credentials.
And the public wouldn’t lose its ability to influence an appointed board. The board would be subject to the state’s open meetings and sunshine laws.
Certainly, an appointment system would need to be considered in detail. Who should be allowed to nominate candidates? Would there be minimum qualifications? How would diversity be ensured?
Such questions demand a deliberative, careful process to answer them. But those deliberations should start now. If the state is going to restructure the school system, officials need to take the time to get it right.