The Hawaii school board renewed Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi’s contract Tuesday, essentially guaranteeing her another three years on the job starting June 30.

The renewal was met with a last-ditch lobbying effort by more than a dozen current and retired principals to delay the decision and convince board members that the state school district’s central leadership team needs a facelift. Board members voted to renew Matayoshi’s contract on the condition that she produce a report responding to the principals’ concerns.

The educators, some of whom held a press conference Monday to denounce department leadership, have cited a recent independently conducted survey that showed dissatisfaction among principals with what they describe as an ineffective and overly centralized public school system.

Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi

Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi in September 2010.

Katherine Poythress/Civil Beat

Hawaii has the only statewide school district in the country.

“You have to empower schools, you have to empower principals, teachers, parents and students so that change will happen,” retired Moanalua High School Principal Darrel Galera said Monday. “Otherwise, 20 years from now, we will continue to have the same situation, the same system with no significant change.”

The survey results suggest that principals feel crippled by numerous initiatives they are being asked to implement in their schools, including revised bell schedules, the rigorous Common Core academic standards and, more than anything, a new teacher evaluation system that was rolled out this past year. Most principals — about 88 percent — say they aren’t getting enough support from the district, while three-fourths of them feel that the implementation of new initiatives has negatively affected their schools.

“You have to empower schools, you have to empower principals, teachers, parents and students so that change will happen.”

Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of them fear retaliation from the district if they publicly express their concerns, according to the survey, which garnered responses from 160 of the state’s 255 DOE principals.

Galera, who administered the April survey, urged board members Tuesday to address the concerns before renewing Matayoshi’s contract. Galera said that he’s gotten very little response to the survey from district administrators and board members, even though he released the results weeks ago.

Leaders on the ground should be empowered to make decisions for their schools, Galera said, not administrators at the district level. Galera was joined by other community members who also testified Tuesday urging board members to hold off on their decision.

Board Members Respond

One board member — Jim Williams — argued that centralizing certain duties, such as student transportation, at the state office benefits rather than hurts the school system.

“These are so-called ‘top-down decisions,’ and I’m wondering if you think these kinds of decisions should be made separately by (255) different schools,” Williams, who chairs the board’s Human Resource Committee, said to Galera.

Other board members, including Chairman Don Horner and Vice Chairman Brian De Lima, said they’ve taken the survey seriously. Nancy Budd, another board member, said she’s heard similar complaints from principals on Kauai and that she’s very concerned about morale at the schools.

Still, the concern wasn’t enough to change their minds about Matayoshi’s contract, and after meeting behind closed doors in executive session for nearly three hours, the board voted to put her on the job another three years.

“During her term, the DOE has faced significant challenges, including budget deductions, union issues, federal mandates, and implementation of a new comprehensive strategic plan,” Horner said in a statement following the decision. “She has reorganized the entire department to be in alignment with our strategic objectives, which are focused on student success.”

Matayoshi, who assumed her position in 2010, said that she and her colleagues have taken the survey to heart and plan on addressing the concerns with improvements to new programs, such as the teacher evaluation system.

“We’re going to pull all that feedback together — it’s very varied — so that we can make thoughtful changes to the system in place now,” she said, noting that she “would have liked” to see the survey results and discuss them with Galera before they were released to the media in mid-May.

Potential improvements include streamlining some of the evaluation procedures and lessening the paperwork, Matayoshi said. She didn’t, however, address if the department plans to give principals more autonomy over school initiatives.

She said she was disturbed to hear that principals fear retaliation for being critical, considering the DOE encourages educators to provide honest feedback through various means.

Not Just Principals

Others who asked the board Tuesday to wait before renewing Matayoshi’s contract included state Sen. Laura Thielen and University of Hawaii law professor Randy Roth.

“To me it would be a dereliction of your duty to make a decision today to renew the contract without reaching out to gather more input on what this board needs, what this department needs, in a superintendent,” Thielen said, citing the principals’ survey and similar criticisms that have since been raised by teachers.

Thielen also asked the board to be more transparent in how it evaluates the DOE superintendent. Board members gave Matayoshi an “exceptional” rating in her most recent annual evaluation, but didn’t disclose the criteria used in the assessment.

Roth praised Matayoshi’s leadership, but said the board should take stock of the survey results before renewing her contract.

“I think we need new leadership,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think we need a new leader.”

“Unless you go through the process and hear her thoughts about this (survey) … I don’t think any decision you would make one way or another would hold much water with the public.”

The Legislature passed a bill this year to raise the cap on the superintendent’s salary from $150,000 to $250,000, but Gov. Neil Abercrombie has yet to sign off on the legislation.

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