Superintendent finalists interviewed by BOE; HSTA declines to recommend either one

It will be a couple of weeks before the Board of Education is expected to formally decide who will be the next leader of Hawaii’s public schools. On Thursday, the BOE held its final interviews with the two finalists, Linda Chen and Christina Kishimoto, as some members of the public called on the board to re-open the search and include finalists with experience in Hawaii.

Both from the mainland with no strong ties to Hawaii, Chen is an educational consultant and former chief academic officer at Baltimore City Public Schools (with 84,000 students), and Kishimoto is the superintendent of Arizona’s Gilbert Unified School District, which serves about 38,000 students. Neither candidate has held an administrative position in a system as large as Hawaii’s statewide district with 180,000 students, 13,500 teachers and 290 schools.


Chen served as a public school teacher in Seattle and New York City for seven years before going into administrative capacities. Kishimoto does not have a teaching background. Her first job was as an assistant analyst at a benefits consulting firm in New York City.

In testimony to the BOE Thursday, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said, “The HSTA is disappointed that no candidate in Hawaii or with strong ties to the islands made the short list of finalists. We feel knowledge about our unique cultures and our statewide school system is important for our next superintendent to be effective.”

“We also wish that HSTA would have been allowed to interview the initial eight finalists. This denied HSTA and the full Board of Education the opportunity to potentially compare a local candidate with the two finalists. Lacking complete information makes it difficult for HSTA to know whether these two candidates were the best applicants to be the next superintendent,” Rosenlee added.

Instead of recommending either of the two candidates, Rosenlee said HSTA would reiterate the qualities the Association hopes for in the next superintendent.

“We believe that the next superintendent should have extensive experience as a teacher and principal. Our DOE leader should grasp the opportunity under the new federal education law to replace a culture of standardized testing with a school climate that magnifies support. Support for a well-rounded education, with authentic assessments along with arts and place-based learning. Support for teachers, with an evaluation system that respects classroom autonomy and provides relevant, useful professional development,” Rosenlee said.

“Our next superintendent needs to understand the complex areas of special education and English Language Learners. And perhaps most important, the next leader of the DOE needs to be approachable and collaborative, someone who listens to teachers because they are the ones closest to students in the classroom,” he added.

Some members of the public submitted testimony asking the board to re-open the search and said having two finalists little knowledge of Hawaii was a mistake.

Caroline Ward Oda, the head of school emerita of the St. Andrews Schools said, “There were three local candidates among the semi-finalists for this position. 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.”

Cal Chinen of Kaneohe wrote, “Surely, out of the thousands of employees of our DOE, there must be some who are more than qualified. Would you please re-consider and open up the search for more qualified and proven candidates?”

“The backgrounds of the two state superintendent finalists chill me to the bone,” said Donna Whitford, who described herself as a 40-year DOE veteran who’s been a principal for the last 12 years. “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, submitted testimony that said, “I strongly oppose the selection of either one of the two out-of-state finalists for the position of State Superintendent of Education. There are several qualified candidates who have attended public schools, taught in public schools, and/or administered public schools. 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!”

In remarks before the BOE Thursday, Chen said, “From the leeward side in the Waianae community, to the windward side in Kahuku and then back down through the North Shore, central district, we must really differentiate our support and approach to account for the diverse needs in every community.” 

Kishimoto told the board, “This is going to take tremendous work. This requires a hyper attention and focus on student-centered-ness, community-driven actions, culturally rich and engaging activities, and standard space design.”

The Board of Education interviewed the candidates and deliberated in executive session. It’s not known if the panel made any decisions behind closed doors. The BOE deferred public decision-making for at least two weeks.