In the first-ever public discussion of the Hawaii school superintendent’s year-end evaluation, the state Board of Education Thursday had a mix of praise and sharp words for the schools chief.

In an hours-long, audio-only discussion carried over WebEx, with no video, the education board delivered an overall “effective” rating for Christina Kishimoto, who is approaching the three-year mark as head of Hawaii’s public schools.

But that relatively strong score — the second-highest, below “highly effective” — belied the sometimes piercing discussion of Kishimoto’s performance during the last year, one marked by the sudden disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during press conference announcing pay increases for special needs teachers.
Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, graded herself as “highly effective” in five categories. The board did not agree with that overall assessment. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

When it comes to how many DOE students are actively participating in distance learning during school closures, for instance, board member Bruce Voss said the DOE has been unable to produce concrete data.

“An awful lot more work needs to be done,” he said, adding if he were a teacher grading the superintendent on this point, it would be “incomplete.”

Board Differed From Self-Evaluation

Kishimoto was graded in five categories over the past year: visionary leadership and organizational culture; operations, resource and personnel management; board governance and policy; communication and community relations; and advocacy of equity.

In a self-evaluation submitted to the board prior to Thursday’s meeting, Kishimoto scored herself as “highly effective” in each of the five categories, attaching short narrative blurbs as to why she believes so.

The board disagreed.

In the first area of visionary leadership, the members of the board voted her “effective.” When it came to operations and personnel management, which includes the long-time thorn in the DOE’s side, facilities management and upkeep, the board scored Kishimoto the second-lowest rating of “marginal.”

They also voted her performance in board governance and policy, which relates to her level of communication with her board, as “effective,” and communication with the general public as “effective.” It reserved its top rating of “highly effective” when it comes to her work on outreach to marginalized student groups like special needs students and English language learners.

Saying she had a “good heart and strong sense of spirit,” Voss said, “her whole life has been about equity. One of the main reasons we hired the superintendent was to fix some of the serious issues with disabled and ELL populations.”

But the overall tenor of the board’s discussion left even Kishimoto seeming chastened and taken aback midway through.

Pointing out that the board had “stood behind her” in her mid-year evaluation, she said Thursday’s tone marked a large departure.

“This is very, very different feedback,” she said. “I do think there is a difference between the balance of feedback you provide to me.”

Noting that she’s always had a great relationship with members, taking their feedback in stride and providing her cell phone number and email address, she pointed out that her job performance over the last 12 months ought not to be defined by recent events.

“The fact we’ve gotten into a crisis shouldn’t be used as an example of things you think I should be improved on,” she said.

However, the board’s criticism of Kishimoto’s year-end progress wasn’t just defined by shortcomings marked in the pandemic era, which includes the DOE’s lack of data collection around device distribution or Wi-Fi access.

The board pointed to several things, including the lack of lead time in voting on approval on things like the DOE’s new 10-year strategic plan, known as the “Promise Plan”, or on modified graduation requirements during the pandemic.

They also cited the lack of information-sharing when it comes to the success of the DOE’s new teacher recruitment initiatives; the lack of transparency when it comes to the state of its facilities; or the fact it provided little to no analysis of information presented during a November data retreat.

BOE Board Member Margaret Cox.
BOE board members Margaret Cox and Dwight Takeno chimed in with their comments during the hours-long meeting Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Board member Kaimana Barcarse said it puts the board of education “in a precarious position” when information released by the DOE goes public just days before the panel is asked to vote on approving a measure.

Board member Ken Uemura said the superintendent has failed to provide “data, metrics or comparisons to prior years,” leaving the only basis for rating “individual observation.” 

Uemura also noted how the DOE failed to share with the board actual results of new teacher recruitment and retention initiatives, including attempts to recruit educators overseas or offer pay incentives to teachers for referrals.

“Last time we checked, they were going to cut the budget on teacher recruitment,” Uemura said.

Maggie Cox, who previously has been vocal in her support for Kishimoto, recounted the recent story of a DOE principal who learned of the summer school learning plan from the media before it was shared directly with schools by administrators.

“It is clear to me we really need to work on this whole process and especially with communications with the schools. Somehow, it’s not really flowing the way it should be,” Cox said.

But the harshest words were reserved for the superintendent’s oversight of facilities management branch, which has come under sharp scrutiny by the Legislature for misstating a backlog amount.

Voss said the DOE has “lost a lot of credibility with the Legislature” in this regard.

“The thing about credibility is, once you lose it, it’s very hard to get back,” he said.

Criticism Was Not Unanimous

But other board members jumped to the superintendent’s defense, particularly when it comes to inheriting outdated management systems or praising her for being an articulate and passionate advocate for public education.

Board chairwoman Catherine Payne, an at-large member who refrained from voting except in the last two sub-categories, said she didn’t want the discussion to leave anyone with “doubts about the capacity of the superintendent’s performance through this.”

As for her overall vision for Hawaii’s public schools, Kishimoto defended her record on engaging the school community and giving school leaders autonomy to lead.

“I will say I don’t agree with that, (that) I have not led with vision,” she said. “This is a vision that came not from me but being open to multiple voices and the community and not being afraid of getting those voices engaged.”

Kishimoto, who previously headed the school district in Gilbert, Arizona and before that Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, also received an “effective” rating this time last year.

She was hired by the board on a three-year contract through July 2020, but that contract was extended by one year during a late 2018 vote by the board. Her contract runs through July 2021.

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