IN THE NEWS:  BOE structure needs refining


BOE structure needs refining

One of the big selling points of replacing an elected Board of Education with one appointed by the governor was that the change would clarify the lines of accountability for Hawaii’s sprawling public school system. The governor would appoint the board, which in turn would hire the superintendent, who would oversee the Department of Education.

With Hawaii’s DOE unique in the nation for its scope (a single, statewide school system) and funding source (primarily state general funds, not municipal property taxes, as is common elsewhere), many different elected officials exerted influence over the school system, including the governor, state legislators and the Board of Education — but none truly owned the results.

The constitutional amendment that Hawaii voters approved in 2010 was intended to fix that, and five years in, it’s clear that the appointment process needs refining. Overall, the appointed board is an improvement over the dysfunctional elected one it replaced. But the promised accountability for the governor still does not exist and won’t in the future, because every new governor will be left with his or her predecessor’s appointees — sometimes for years. Most current appointees receive three-year terms.

Senate Bill 126, introduced by Sen. Breene Harimoto, himself a formerly elected BOE member, rightly recognizes this problem, but offers a solution that is itself problematic: terminating current board members’ terms at the end of June and having the governor appoint members to four-year terms that run concurrently with his own.

While this approach would ensure that appointees are on the same page as the governor who appoints them — an issue now because Gov. David Ige won office thanks in part to school-empowerment views not necessarily aligned with the current board — it also could create upheaval if the whole board turns over every four years.

Although term renewals of some appointees could mitigate that, it would be better to amend the bill to stagger appointees’ terms at two-year, four-year and six-year increments. That way, each new governor would be able to appoint two-thirds of the board — establishing authority and accountability — while preserving the institutional knowledge needed to ease each transition.

Harimoto also is on the right track to propose reconfiguring the education board so that representation aligns with geographical sub-districts within the DOE, and this can be achieved without increasing the size of the board from nine to 11 members, as SB 126 proposes. The current board consists of three at-large seats, three Oahu seats, and one each for Hawaii island, Maui and Kauai. The new board could have a seat for each of the DOE’s subdistricts — Hawaii island, Maui, Kauai, Honolulu, Central Oahu, Leeward Oahu and Central Oahu, plus two at-large seats.

The bill is too constraining, though, in requiring specific job experience of certain appointees. Governors deserve wide latitude to choose the best candidates they can to maintain and improve Hawaii’s public schools.

After 42 years of being able to elect the Board of Education, voters relinquished that right with the expectation that having the governor appoint BOE members would ensure accountability and boost the schools and the students who rely on them. Given that the appointment process falls short of that aim, lawmakers should refine it so that the governor and the school board are truly aligned in their responsibility for education in Hawaii.