State Sen. David Ige said Thursday that if voters elect him governor this fall he will work to change how public schools are managed, starting with the statewide Board of Education, whose members are appointed.

“We need to stop the top-down bureaucracy that is smothering our schools,” he said.

Civil Cafe_David Ige

Gubernatorial Sen. David Ige with Civil Beat political reporter Chad Blair

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate fielded an array of questions before an audience of about 60 concerned citizens and campaign supporters who attended Civil Beat’s monthly Civil Cafe event, which was held at Fresh Cafe in Kakaako.

Reforming the public education system and restoring the University of Hawaii’s reputation were two of many topics Ige tackled. He also addressed homelessness, government transparency, funding the state’s pension system, preserving land on Oahu’s North Shore and medical marijuana. (He’s open to dispensaries.)

The legislative veteran wasn’t exactly smooth in his opening remarks, but he warmed up over the next hour, later drawing applause for succinct responses to pointed political questions, and for his personal stories about growing up and going to high school in Pearl City.

The 29-year veteran of the Legislature ultimately came across as confident, if not polished, answering questions first from the event’s moderator, Civil Beat reporter Chad Blair, and later from the crowd.

Even though Gov. Neil Abercrombie has raised about 10 times as much money in preparation for the gubernatorial campaign, the most recent polls have shown Ige within striking distance as the Aug. 9 primary approaches.

Asked how he has been able to do so well with so little money, Ige said his campaign has been raising the funds necessary to tell his story.

“It really is more than who can raise the most money,” he said.

Still, Hawaii voters haven’t kicked a governor out of office since 1962. And there’s a perception that Abercrombie, a longtime public servant who’s known for his ability to inspire as an orator, will comfortably defeat the soft-spoken Ige.

Asked how he would overcome this, Ige replied: “I’ve accepted every single opportunity to debate the governor and he has declined.”

Ige’s remarks about the school board surprised some in the audience. And more than once, he highlighted how he and his wife have three children who have gone through the public education system. Abercrombie is married but childless.

At one point, Ige took credit for a comprehensive restructuring of public schools about 20 years ago and said that another law enacted a decade later addressed the same problems by empowering students and educators.

But over the past decade, Ige said education in Hawaii has gone backwards, including under the current administration, and that the system has become more centralized. He suggested that some of this is due to Abercrombie not following through.

Ige said Hawaii needs a better school board, but he was careful not to single out any current members — particularly since he voted in the Senate to confirm each of them.

The seven current school board members — all appointed by the governor — are well-respected in their various communities.

Ige, who secured an endorsement from the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said that, if elected governor, he wouldn’t move to replace the whole board. But going forward, he would like to appoint members who have children in public schools.

A proud graduate of the University of Hawaii, Ige said he has been disappointed in the performance of the Board of Regents.

He said that efforts to reduce the maintenance backlog at the flagship Manoa campus have moved too slowly and the two candidates for the university’s presidency that the board recently put forward do not offer enough choice or quality.

Ige said he would have preferred the board hire an executive search committee to find better candidates.

Disclosure for UH Regents?

The Legislature unanimously passed a bill last session that would require the regents to file public financial disclosure statements for the first time. At least one board member has said he will resign if forced to do so.

Ige said the Legislature has given the regents a lot of autonomy and with that comes responsibility. Public financial disclosure statements improve accountability, he said.

Abercrombie, who was endorsed by the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, has until June 23 to decide if he will veto the bill.

Past governors have twice vetoed measures that would have forced boards and commissions to publicly disclose their financial interests.

If Abercrombie vetoes the current bill, which includes the Board of Regents and 14 other agencies, it could become a campaign issue.

Ige worked to distinguish himself from Abercrombie in other ways too. He said he has rejected the governor’s proposals to tax pensions, sugar and plastic bags.

When asked why creating additional revenue for the state like that was a bad idea, Ige said it boils down to the public not believing it is getting good value for its tax dollars.

Not all questions were political.

Asked about his background as a tennis player in high school, Ige told a story that drew the first round of applause of the evening.

He explained how growing up in Pearl City, little league baseball ruled the day. He didn’t make the team, but noticed that hardly anyone was trying out for the tennis squad.

As a freshman, he said the team won four games and lost 41. But by the time he was a senior, the team had turned things around, going 41-6 and taking the division championship.

Ige said he is not looking past Aug. 9 and believes whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to win the Nov. 4 general election, presumably against Republican James “Duke” Aiona and independent Mufi Hanneman.

Civil Beat will soon post the full video of the Civil Cafe with Ige that ran on Olelo.

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