A new year brings with it new budget wars in the Hawaii Legislature. Newly installed Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi showed up at her first budget hearing Wednesday bearing the standard for the department of education with the strength and composure of a veteran.

She responded for two hours to a range of tough and sometimes off-topic questions from the Senate Ways and Means Committee with patience and adeptness. She met denunciations of several Hawaii State Board of Education decisions with grace. (Board Chairman Garrett Toguchi was not present.)

Her composure contrasted with some others who testified at similar hearings this week. They came across as either unprepared or inexperienced, at times became flustered and at a loss for words as lawmakers grilled them.

One topic that raised a host of questions was the board’s recent vote not to raise school meal prices.

“The department is in non-compliance with the Legislature,” pointed out Senate Majority Whip Jill Tokuda, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “We as legislators had to make some tough and uncomfortable choices, and the board is now disregarding them.”

“Is the board shirking its responsibilities?” asked Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, somewhat rhetorically.

“We put our proposals forward to the board,” Matayoshi responded. The board, after it was rejected by voters in November in favor of a board appointed by the governor, refused the department’s recommendation to raise the price of school meals to comply with state law.

Originally hired in 2009 as deputy superintendent to help craft the department’s Race to the Top application, Matayoshi stepped to the helm as interim superintendent in January 2010 after Patricia Hamamoto resigned without warning. The former Hawaii Business Roundtable director then guided the department through possibly the most harrowing year in its history. The year was riddled with the infamous Furlough Fridays, controversial special education budget cuts and an initially rejected Race to the Top application. (The second application was accepted in August and $74.9 million granted to the state for education reforms.)

In September, the board of education appointed Matayoshi to serve as full-time superintendent. She was the only candidate interviewed.

She sat in Wednesday’s hot seat like a pro. She deferred some questions to Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe and Budget Director Adele Chong, but handled the toughest ones herself — including Sen. Will Espero’s off-topic interrogation about a Maui principal on administrative leave for seven months.

“I can’t comment on personnel matters in a public meeting,” she told him repeatedly. “I need to consult with the attorney general before I say anything about that.”

When they were on topic, the committee’s seemingly relentless criticism about program cuts and education reforms only caused Matayoshi to wax more eloquent in the final minutes of the two-hour question and answer session.

Sen. Glenn Wakai asked her, without a hint of irony, if the department should be spending more time improving teacher quality than “being enamored with how many hours kids are in class.” (Ironic because it was the Hawaii Legislature that passed a bill last year requiring the department to increase the number of school hours and days.)

“Yes, I think the quality of that time is significant and important,” Matayoshi responded. “It may not be necessarily cheaper, though. It may not be about what’s more costly or less costly. Getting highly effective teachers in there will require professional development and supports. That was one of the big losses of furlough days that people probably don’t realize: When teachers lost that collaboration time, it had an impact on teaching. One year may not seem like such a big deal, but if it continues, we may see a decrease in quality of teaching.”

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