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Catherine Payne has been a teacher, vice principal and principal during her 36-year tenure with Hawaii’s public schools.
Now she’s positioned to step into a new leadership role as chairwoman of the Hawaii Board of Education for a three-year term starting July 1, pending Senate confirmation.
Payne, whom Gov. David Ige nominated last week as chair of the nine-member panel to replace the outgoing Lance Mizumoto, would be the first board chair in at least a decade who is an educator.
“Education is a lot more complicated than people realize if they’re not in education. The nuances, the challenges, are known best by the people who are in the field or who come from the field,” said Payne, who has won two prestigious national awards for her work in local schools.
“I just hope to bring my experiences and my passion for public education to the point where I can make a difference for the time I have.”
Ige also appointed Dwight Takeno, the director of administrative services for the University of Hawaii Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, to take the place of current board member Hubert Minn, and reappointed Margaret Cox to another three-year term.
Payne is currently chairwoman of the State Public Charter School Commission and educational consultant for Ke Alaka’i Mau LLC. She’ll finish out her term as chair of the commission through June 30 and divest herself of involvement with the LLC.
“I love the public schools,” Payne said in an interview. “They’ve been my life for so long now, and I’m pleased with the direction the superintendent is taking and I’d like to be a part of her vision.”
The Hawaii Board of Education is responsible for developing policies for the statewide school district — the only one in the country that operates as a single school system — and for also hiring and evaluating the school superintendent.
Deepening the level of engagement with the community is an area Payne said she’d like to focus on. “Vibrant discussion,” she said, has been the cornerstone of the public Charter School Commission meetings over which she currently presides.
Payne already has a working relationship with school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, having recently been tapped to be interim complex area superintendent for the Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani area during a reshuffling of central DOE staff.
Payne, 66, began her career in the DOE in 1974. She taught English and social studies at Nanakuli High and Intermediate before becoming the vice-principal of Waianae High.
She also served as the principal of Olomana School, an alternative school serving at-risk students and incarcerated youth. In 1991, while in that role, she was named “Hawaii Secondary Principal of the Year” by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Payne was principal of Farrington High for 15 years, where she was the recipient of the National Milken Educator Award in 1995.
Payne said she supports the governor’s Blueprint for Public Education and is eager to help support Kishimoto’s vision of giving students the space to be heard and charting their education pathway.
“Catherine’s focus is on the school level,” said Joan Husted, former executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, who sits with Payne on the board of Education Institute of Hawaii, a think tank.
“She’s really interested that our schools thrive and can reach their potential. I think she’ll help the board and superintendent move in that direction and give guidance to the superintendent to achieve that.”
Husted added that ever since the BOE switched from an elected board to an appointed one in 2011 following a 2010 constitutional amendment approved by voters, real policy change has happened slowly.
“I always thought the elected board was more aggressive,” said Husted. “I haven’t seen anything come out of the appointed board of consequence, as a whole. I think the most disappointing thing is they are not accessible to the public. My view is that it’s the people’s board, it’s the board the people want to set policy for their schools.”
The nine board members all serve on a voluntary basis and range in background from banking and finance, to law, to community partnerships, to education. Among the departing members, Mizumoto is executive vice-president of First Hawaiian Bank and Minn is a retired teacher and DOE administrator. There is also a student member and military liaison. Meanwhile, a bill pushed by HSTA this session had proposed adding a non-voting member to the board who is a current public school teacher.
Meetings over the last year have been marked by little sustained dialogue between board members and the DOE, with limited follow-up questions and hearty expressions of gratitude and appreciation toward those presenting. Payne said she hopes to inject more energy into those discussions.
“Anyone who’s on that board needs to be able to articulate the objectives and goals and really understand why we do the things we do,” she said.
Among her priorities will be helping the board play a more active role in setting policy for the 256 public schools and 36 charter schools in the school system, which serves roughly 179,000 students across Hawaii.
“People are already coming to me to say, ‘There are policies that are good but are not being implemented … sometimes you just focus on getting those math and reading scores up,’” she recounted.
Payne said she’d also like to work on increasing the board’s visibility and making meetings more accessible to the general public. While there have been several BOE meetings held on the neighbor islands in recent months, the budget for such meeting travel has been dramatically cut.
A subcommittee of the board recently came up with a list of recommendations to make the BOE’s role clearer to the public, whether through evening meetings held across the state; making meeting material available online; or publicly posting responses to board members’ requests for information.
Payne’s experience as chairwoman of the state Public Charter School Commission also provides her with a broader perspective in her new role. Charters are part of the DOE, though run independently by autonomous governing boards.
“We’re building connections not just among regular public and charter schools, but there’s a big connection with private schools, too,” she said. “(We need) a recognition that education in Hawaii is the kuleana of all of us, and it doesn’t matter where the children are getting their education.”
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