School superintendent Christina Kishimoto could see her contract extended by one year under a vote taken by the Hawaii Board of Education during a special meeting late last month.

The vote, conducted in a closed-door executive session, extends the three-year contract of Hawaii’s schools chief, which began Aug. 1, 2017, by one year until July 31, 2021.

The board is waiting for guidance from the state Attorney General’s Office on whether the closed-door vote can stand, Chairwoman Catherine Payne said Monday.

Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and right, Catherine Payne during Board of Education meeting.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, left, with Board of Education chairwoman Catherine Payne, took the helm of the Hawaii public school system in August 2017. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

School superintendents in Hawaii are hired and renewed on a three-year basis by the nine-member school board, whose members are appointed by the governor. The board has never previously opted to extend a superintendent’s contract short term.

But it’s a practice that’s adopted regularly on the mainland to encourage retention, and in this case, sends a clear message the board is pleased with Kishimoto’s performance so far, Payne said.

“We want to make a statement to her and the community that we do have confidence in her, and that the work she’s doing takes time,” Payne said. “You can’t just wave a wand and have everything fixed.”

The vote was taken during a Dec. 21 special meeting in which the board also completed Kishimoto’s mid-year evaluation. She earned an overall rating of “effective” for the last six months based on five professional standards and four strategic priorities identified by the superintendent herself. The highest possible rating is “highly effective.”

Kishimoto came to Hawaii in August 2017 from Arizona, where she was head of the Gilbert Unified School District for three years. She served as superintendent of Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut for three years before that.

Hawaii’s previous school superintendent, Kathryn Matayoshi, was hired in 2010, renewed once, but not extended a second time.

There’s been no shortage of challenges facing Kishimoto in her first year and a half heading Hawaii’s single-district school system. The district encompasses 292 schools, nearly 180,000 students and a staff of 22,500. It has a budget of $1.9 billion.

The Hawaii Department of Education has been hit with fresh lawsuits in the last few months over alleged inequity of girls’ athletic programs and alleged violations of federal civil rights due to bullying and lack of access to behavioral health therapy for students with autism.

The suits touch on long-standing issues, including the absence of a robust anti-bullying policy. DOE is currently seeking to revise the policy.

Kishimoto has designated improving services for English language learners and special education students as priorities and said she wants to emphasize “student voice” during her tenure.

The five professional standards Kishimoto was evaluated on include visionary leadership and organizational culture; operations, resource and personnel management; board governance and policy; communication and community relations; and ethical leadership.

She was graded “effective” in all areas save ethical leadership, where she was scored “highly effective.”

The board lauded the superintendent’s use of traditional and social media to “reach a diverse population.” But it says it wants her to leverage that presence more to help people understand “the scale of challenges and the timelines for addressing them.”

The board also said it wants her to focus on the quality of data that’s presented to the board at meetings and disseminated to the public. Asked specifically what kinds of data the board was referring to, Payne referenced Act 155, or the “21st Century Schools Act,” a pilot program to convert underutilized DOE land into teacher housing or sell to private investors to raise funds for public education.

She also cited the need for better tracking of Medicaid reimbursements concerning special education students. In an August 2018 story, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser chronicled how DOE has been missing out on tens of millions of dollars for Medicaid health services because it failed to pursue claims.

“Both have been really steep learning curves for the department,” said Payne, who assumed the chair role last summer. “One of the things that’s frustrated board members is, we want (Kishimoto) to be in touch with her staff before they come to present (data), that they’re presenting information that’s responsive to what the (finance and infrastructure committee) of the board is looking for.”

The latest controversy facing the DOE as the state heads into the legislative session is the wide disparity in what was reported to lawmakers earlier this year and the actual cost of the department’s repair and maintenance backlog.

The DOE is currently working on an 18-month plan to revamp its financial management system for ongoing capital improvement projects, according to Payne.

“We’re going to have a list of every single project that people can look at and what the estimated cost will be. Everything will be visible for folks,” she said.

Board members said they’re pleased the superintendent has brought more attention to special education and ELL through professional development conferences. But they want to see a more comprehensive anti-bullying strategy and a more targeted teacher recruitment and retention plan that relies on more concrete data to study the reasons teachers are leaving.

Kishimoto’s mid-year evaluation did not include a contract pay raise or change in benefits, nor did her year-end evaluation at the conclusion of the 2017-18 school year. She’s paid $240,000 a year.

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