The Senate Education Committee got an earful Wednesday about why Don Horner should not be reappointed to a new three-year term as chairman of the Hawaii Board of Education.

His Christian faith, critics charge, makes him the wrong person to run the BOE because the church he belongs to believes homosexuality is a sin. Horner micromanages board meetings and does so in a manner that is neither transparent nor accessible, they say. He has also been accused of bullying and of making a racist remark.

Horner, a volunteer pastor with New Hope Diamond Head church, denied it all, saying that it has been a privilege for him to serve as board chair.

“My goal is the children,” he told senators.

They believed him, voting unanimously — “wholeheartedly,” in the words of Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda — to send his nomination to the full Senate for confirmation.

“I have never at any point felt he was trying to impose his religious views on our schools, and I assure you I would know it if he were trying to do it,” Tokuda told hearing attendees after the vote.

The parent of a public school child, Tokuda, who said she works closely with Horner and considers him a friend, added, “I would definitely know it.”

The Horner nomination embodied several themes that have been at the forefront of the Hawaii Legislature of late: When has the line between church and state been crossed? Are government agencies unduly influenced by political calculations? What should we teach our children in public schools? And are the rights and dignity of minority groups being honored?

Opposition to Horner’s renomination surfaced earlier this week and centered on the role of New Hope churches in trying to stop same-sex marriage legislation last fall — and whether Horner was somehow trying to advance the churches’ goals now that marriage equality is part of Hawaii law.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

The media covering the Horner hearing.

LGBT activists, their supporters and open-government advocates were among those alleging that Horner has a blatant conflict of interest in leading the board and serving the church. Their concerns are detailed in written testimony on the nomination of Horner, who was selected for the BOE position by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Horner’s hearing seemed primed for a heated exchange of views. The media was on hand, as were Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Ben Villaflor and two sheriff’s deputies who stood post outside the hearing.

Girl Fest Hawaii founder and Democratic congressional candidate Kathryn Xian told senators Wednesday that Horner had been accused of using the expression “shuckin’ and jivin’,” which she described as a “racial slur” against African Americans. Xian said she feared for vulnerable LGBT students if a man like Horner continues to run the school board.

Jo-Ann Adams, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii‘s GLBT Caucus, said that a transgendered person — Kim Coco Iwamoto — served admirably on the school board when it was still an elected body, showing understanding for the needs and challenges of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students.

Voters elected to make board membership an appointed position in 2010, effective the following year when Abercrombie selected Horner.

Adams said many activists found the switch “distressing.” Horner, after all, had been a member of the Hawaii Business Roundtable that lobbied Gov. Linda Lingle to veto civil unions legislation.

But Horner also has a lot of supporters, and they included prominent figures like Kamehameha Schools CEO Dee Jay Mailer, businessman Mitch D’Olier and Central Pacific Bank head John Dean, to name just a few. All submitted written testimony in his favor.

Most importantly, Horner appeared to have the support of the Senate Education Committee — especially Tokuda — that nonetheless felt compelled to ask Horner directly about the accusations made against him. (A fifth member, Russell Ruderman, did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.)

Under questioning from Sam Slom, Horner denied that he failed to disclose all of his affiliations when he was first named to the board in 2011, and said he was not aware of any association between New Hope Church and Transformation Hawaii, a group that aims to instill God in government.

Horner also said that he did not recall ever using the words “shuckin’ and jivin’,” and that if he somehow did say those words, he apologized and promised never to use them again.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Security was present in case the Don Horner hearing got out of hand.

Nor had Horner imposed his religious views on his BOE work, he said, or denied other people’s right to speak freely at meetings or to the board.

He pointed out that the BOE had little control over the controversial Pono Choices sexual education curriculum used by some schools, and said he expects the abstinence-based program to be retained. (A review of the program by the DOE is expected soon.)

Horner also said the BOE had no control over the renting of school facilities to outside groups, including New Hope churches, something that has been the subject of lawsuits. The idea that he was some sort of “inside agent” doing New Hope’s bidding had no basis in fact, he said.

Slom asked Horner if he wanted to respond to the charge that he is a religious bigot. Horner declined, saying, “No, sir. I have chosen to be in the public square, and the public has a right to judge. But I ask that they judge with asking rather than just assuming.”

What Horner had accomplished on his three years on the board, he said, was to “crystallize” a strategic plan for schools that is currently being implemented.

“There were lots of chefs in the kitchen before,” said Horner. “We now have clarity and purpose and are moving forward.”

At one point, Slom reminded Horner that when he was appointed to his first term in 2011, there was no public outcry.

“Everyone thought you were walking on water,” Slom said, perhaps aware of the religious analogy.

“No deed goes unpunished,” Horner replied.

Contact Chad Blair via email at cblair@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

About the Author