Opposition to renewing the school superintendent’s contract when it expires at the end of July has been widening in education circles amid criticism of her handling of the pandemic and communication style.

But members of the Hawaii Board of Education decided Thursday to save the topic for a later date, citing time limitations and an otherwise packed agenda that included a plan to more fully reopen elementary schools on March 22.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto joined the state Department of Education in August 2017 under a three-year contract at a $240,000 annual salary. She was granted a one-year contract extension in early 2019, meaning her term would expire on July 30.

The BOE’s human resources subcommittee had been due to begin discussions on whether to extend her contract for four more years but instead voted to defer the issue until a meeting to be held no later than March 18, when at least eight of nine board members can be present.

“Because this is such a critical topic, the board needs time to fully discuss the issues we heard in testimony,” board chairwoman Catherine Payne said at Thursday’s meeting.

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during press conference announcing pay increases for special needs teachers.
Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, left, seen here at a 2019 press conference with Gov. David Ige, is up for a contract renewal when her current term ends on July 30. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It wasn’t clear whether that would constitute an official full vote, or just an opener to kick off the conversation.

Kishimoto, who came to Hawaii after leading the Gilbert Unified School District in Arizona for three years, has called the debate over her contract renewal “a distraction,” saying she needs to stay focused on important issues such as efforts to return to in-person learning.

She briefed the Board of Education on her previously announced plan to bring all elementary school students back to the classroom after spring break.

But she appeared to walk back from the earlier guidance, saying she never meant that “all” elementary schools would open simultaneously.

“We’re not rushing to this next level of reopening,” she told board members. “We’re putting it in writing so principals have (notice). The planning at school level continues to be really important.”

Growing Criticism

The deferral came after a groundswell of opposition to the contract renewal in heated written and verbal testimony ahead of the board meeting, mostly from teachers, principals and education community advocates who berated the leadership for what they called a lack of transparency and adequate communication over the past year.

Kishimoto has come under fire for many pandemic-related issues ranging from the debate over adequate spacing between desks to her ability to effectively present a sound strategy for reopening Hawaii’s 257 public schools, which serve 162,000 students.

“We believe the pandemic was the superintendent’s opportunity to rise to the challenge … and do the best job for our students, but the superintendent did not provide effective leadership,” testified Cheri Nakamura, head of the He’e Coalition.

Even principals who usually avoid publicly airing grievances have spoken out on the issue.

“This is something I don’t find easy,” Kaneohe Elementary principal Derek Minakami, president of Bargaining Unit 6 of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents principals, vice principals and other administrators, said during open testimony.

Minakami cited a lack of “clear and consistent direction” from the superintendent, adding that principals “appreciate the goal of empowering school leaders when it comes to health and safety” but have been frustrated to hear about top-level decisions made through other channels.

He said neither he nor the rest of the HGEA Unit 6 could “in good faith endorse her reappointment.”

HSTA Corey Rosenlee, DOE, teacher union
Hawaii State Teacher Association president Corey Rosenlee talks during a reporter Zoom call on March 2, 2021. Screenshot

The BOE has no firm deadline to vote to renew Kishimoto’s contract, but many were disappointed with the way the matter was handled on Thursday.

“Either they knew it had to be deferred, perhaps agreed to it quietly before, or they are unable to think up to two minutes in the future,” former state legislator Jim Shon said in an email.

The deferral came during a week of unflattering feedback about Kishimoto.

In a Honolulu Star-Advertiser Spotlight interview on Wednesday, Kishimoto addressed the controversy by saying she refused to “get caught up in the distraction.”

She said she was going to stay focused on a reopening plan of elementary schools. “We’re talking about the academic wellness of our students, social and emotional, mental health wellness. That’s what we need to focus on and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.

In a survey conducted by Ward Research and commissioned by The Learning Coalition that was released earlier this week, 58% of 157 principal respondents said the DOE did not do well in communicating information during the COVID-19 pandemic. The margin of error was 4.9%.

Anonymous comments by principals included in the survey bemoaned the lack of direction from the DOE and lack of clear guidance. The survey centered on the level of communication around the DOE’s next 10-year strategic plan and also the DOE’s handling of the pandemic.

“Most information is shared with teachers through HSTA before principals get any information. Difficult to get timely responses from state/district personnel. They do not answer emails or phone calls,” one comment said.

In a press call with reporters earlier in the week, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, Corey Rosenlee, said the union’s board of directors — composed of 29 voluntary teachers across the state — had voted unanimously last weekend to urge the BOE not to renew Kishimoto.

“There had been so much built-up frustration,” Rosenlee said during the call. “You had seen it over the last year: thousands upon thousands of teachers having to go to the board of education so many times to get the board to change a position the superintendent had taken.”

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