Three veteran complex area superintendents will retire from the Hawaii Department of Education by the end of the school year, taking with them decades of combined institutional knowledge but confident future leadership will be in strong hands.

“The three of us are going out at the same time,” said Ann Mahi, superintendent of the Nanakuli-Waianae complex area on Oahu’s west side. For her, she said, “it was family and the timing and wanting to transition over to someone who can continue the work.”

In addition to Mahi, Art Souza, complex area superintendent for Honokaa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena on the Big Island, and Bill Arakaki, complex area superintendent for Kapaa-Kauai-Waimea, the only school district on Kauai, will be stepping down.

Art Souza, complex area superintendent for the Honokaa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena area on the Big Island, will officially retire by the end of the year. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2019

The trio have been part of the DOE system long enough to see their kids grow up in the public school system — and now their kids’ kids. All three recall major dramatic events in school history such as Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and also remember an era before smartphones and technology introduced a whole new layer to school infrastructure and social fabric.

As top-level administrators of a “complex area,” which encompasses a high school and the elementary and middle schools feeding into it, superintendents are close to the top of the DOE organizational structure.

They typically have prior experience as principals, vice-principals and educators. They’re in charge of supervising those positions across all the schools in their area, working on developing collegiality among principals and also taking care of matters such as grants and contracts. It’s a balancing act that requires coordination and a deep understanding of the areas they serve, Mahi said.

“You become a leader of leaders,” said the Kaneohe native, who began her career at the DOE in 1976 as a teacher before taking administrator roles, such as principal of Kailua Elementary and Roosevelt High.

“You’ve got to fall in love with the community and get involved in the things that are important to them,” she added. “You know their names, you know their faces, but you’ve got to know their stories.”

The pending retirements of a third of the DOE’s complex area superintendent roster — there are 15 total — underscores the fast-approaching retirement eligibility of the DOE’s leadership.

Of the 5,300 “civil service & exempt” DOE positions, 15% are currently eligible to retire while 30% will be eligible by 2023, according to a state workforce profile compiled by the Department of Human Resources Development.

The impending departures of the complex area superintendents were foreshadowed at a Board of Education meeting last month, in which the DOE executive team requested the base pay for the position be increased from $135,000 to $145,000 to entice more applicants.

“It’s just the right time.” — Art Souza, complex area superintendent

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, in charge of choosing complex area superintendents, said she’s asked current superintendents to give her at least a year’s notice to ease the transition.

“We’ve had stability at the CAS level for a good amount of time,” she said.

Art Souza, 70, the longest-serving superintendent at 15 years, with total DOE experience of 31 years, will already have a successor when he officially steps down in December: Janette Snelling, former principal of Kohala High and now a deputy complex area superintendent.

“It’s just the right time,” Souza said. “You get to a point where you believe process is at a good place. That external perspective and someone’s else vision is important.”

Bill Arakaki, 63, doesn’t know who will assume his place come next year. His Kauai district is a whole island complex, with its biggest challenges being equity and reaching excellence, he said.

Souza, though leaving in December, will be involved in a special DOE project for the next six months that focuses on designing school programming geared around equity.

Like Arakaki, Mahi, 66, will retire the end of June 2020. In her 8 years in that role, she worked to develop a more positive school culture in the Waianae schools and offer more teacher development centered on the effects of trauma on students.

“We’re the old guys,” Mahi said. “There will be vacancies, there always will be vacancies. How do we better prepare people to have experiences in different capacities to do a good job? How can we help them better prepare for it? That’s what the department is doing now.”

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