In April 2018, Hawaii’s schools superintendent Christina Kishimoto joined the teachers’ union at the State Capitol to witness a key Senate vote that secured passage of a constitutional amendment proposing a new tax to fund public schools.

The mood among the red-shirted union members in the Senate gallery that day was celebratory and triumphant as the bill sailed through on a 23-1 vote.

While the state Department of Education had not taken an official position on the bill, Kishimoto’s appearance alongside the Hawaii State Teachers Association, one year into her tenure, spoke volumes: she stood united with the group in its quest to increase funding for public education.

HSTA Teachers and Staff jubilate after vote passed in their favor thru the senate.
Christina Kishimoto, at bottom left, is seated next to HSTA President Corey Rosenlee, and other union members during an April 2018 state Senate vote on the Con Am bill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That show of goodwill was nowhere to be found during the past year, when the school chief and union leaders frequently locked horns over how to deal with the pandemic after teachers and students were forced into the then-unfamiliar territory of distance learning and managing health and safety concerns in the physical classroom.

The disputes reached a breaking point in August, when HSTA filed a complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board over DOE’s plan to return students to the classroom by the start of the school year. The clashes continued over the lack of a clear and consistent policy for teacher teleworking and the superintendent’s proposed use of federal stimulus dollars to pay outside tutors for students who need to catch up, among other things.

Earlier this month, the superintendent faced additional resistance when principals who are part of Unit 6 of the Hawaii Government Employees Association spoke out against renewing Kishimoto’s contract for what they said was inconsistent and shifting guidance over the reopening of schools for the fourth quarter.

With a fight brewing over her upcoming contract renewal, Kishimoto, a Bronx native who came to Hawaii under a three-year contract that began in August 2017 and was extended by a year, announced that she would step down when her term ends on July 30.

Kishimoto, who previously had served as school superintendent in Gilbert, Arizona, and Hartford, Connecticut, earned $240,000 per year.

Her impending departure raises questions about the influence of unions, especially the powerful HSTA, which represents 13,700 public school teachers and campaigned against Kishimoto’s contract renewal.

In an emailed statement, the union’s president, Corey Rosenlee, said: “HSTA has no desire to re-litigate the past. Instead, we are focused on the future and giving our keiki the schools they deserve.”

Early Praise, Then Concerns

In the beginning of her tenure, Kishimoto earned high marks from the state Board of Education, which is responsible for hiring and evaluating the school superintendent and shaping school policy, for championing student voices, encouraging schools to be more creative with instruction and being a fierce defender of a public school education.

She also received early praise for her efforts to visit all 257 schools when she arrived in Hawaii and to recognize teachers and bright spot schools via her social media account.

School board member Bruce Voss said in an interview she was a “strong and relentless advocate for the underprivileged students in our schools,” citing efforts to broaden support for special education students in particular.

In her most recent evaluation last May, Kishimoto received an overall “effective” rating, earning the strongest praise for her outreach to marginalized student groups, but the lowest rating in the operations category, which concerns things like teacher recruitment and retention strategies and budget management.

Board members also expressed displeasure over the lack of communication from the DOE, including little lead time to vote on a new 10-year strategic plan or lack of data on how many students didn’t have laptops for remote instruction.

Kishimoto struggled to present a cohesive strategy when the pandemic set in, according to advocates who pointed to a lack of good data when it came to things like student device distribution or clear marching orders to school leaders for reopening their campuses.

“It seemed it was a communication thing,” said Cheri Nakamura, director of the He’e Coalition, an education advocacy group, pointing out that Kishimoto is an “extremely good communicator as an individual” and on “communicating externally about positive things in the department.”

But when it came to pandemic plans, “she would say things on the news and there would be a lot of confusion. She made these decisions without consulting the board.”

And when it came to Kishimoto’s “school empowerment approach,” it wasn’t quite clear to many education advocates what exactly that meant, said David Miyashiro, executive director of Hawaii KidsCAN. He said that approach created a lot of confusion among principals who were told to decide their own reopening models.

“The school empowerment model created that culture, that every school would do its own thing for better or for worse,” he said. “But in times of full crisis, the issue with that model comes to the forefront.”

Kishimoto’s announcement that she would step down came after the union presented a list of concerns to the state education board.

In a March 9 call with reporters, the superintendent said she had worked “hand in hand” with union leaders for more than four years, and that they were “at the table the entire time.”

She praised their collaboration on pushing for teacher salary differentials, though that issue, ironically, landed her in hot water a month ago when she unilaterally informed principals, without advance notice to the board or union, she was eliminating those bonuses next school year due to the budget shortfall caused by COVID-19.

The board later directed her to rescind the letter and commit to continuing the pay boosts next year through stimulus funds.

‘A Perfect Storm’

While Kishimoto had only diplomatic words about the union at her March 9 press conference, she had been battling a well-mobilized machine that had been voicing displeasure with her leadership style since last spring.

When the Board of Education switched to audio-only virtual meetings over WebEx at the onset of the pandemic, the format allowed for a steady stream of call-in testimony from the public that could last well over two hours.

Among the most vocal of testifiers were teachers and HSTA members, with a good dose of parents mixed in, particularly when the DOE was deciding how the 2020-21 school year would start, with children in classrooms or learning remotely.

This was not lost on some board members.

“We as a board need to be more connected to all the voices in the system and not just listen to the voices that shout the loudest,” Voss said.

Board member Dwight Takeno acknowledged to Civil Beat that the reams of testimony from HSTA members were hard to ignore when considering the superintendent’s future.

Public sit in a circle during a meet/greet with Board of Education board member Dwight Takeno and left, Chair Catherine Payne at Manoa Library.
BOE member Dwight Takeno, seated next to chairwoman Catherine Payne, heads the human resources subcommittee that put the subject of Kishimoto’s contract extension up for discussion. Members had to defer the discussion due to time constraints. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I would have gone into it with an open mind,” he said. But, he added, “the testimony I read speaks for itself.”

Board member Lynn Fallin said in an interview she found the groundswell of opposition against Kishimoto to be a concern. She noted that she had raised the issue of DOE’s lack of clear communication with schools since joining the board in July.

Fallin also pointed out that principals, normally not a group to speak out, were also opposed to renewing the superintendent’s contract, as expressed by the board of directors of HGEA Unit 6. She also cited a recent survey by Ward Research in which 58% of 157 DOE principals said they didn’t get good communication from the DOE to pass on to families.

“When you lose the teachers and HGEA and the principals, and you lose the advocates, well, you’re on quicksand,” said Jim Shon, a former state legislator and former director of Hawaii Educational Policy Center.

Still, Shon said, the possibility that Kishimoto might not gather enough votes to secure her extension in Hawaii, is not “as simple as unions throwing their weight around.”

“There was a growing recognition she was not up to the task, and not just because of the pandemic,” he said.

“Lots of stakeholders and educators concluded she was not listening and unable to be decisive and transparent on many levels.” He said that Kishimoto had lately “waited until the Board meetings to spring a decision on them” and failed to “provide useful analysis and data to help them make policy decisions.”

“Legislators are listening to the union too,” Shon added. “It’s a perfect storm of grumbling dissatisfaction and certainly COVID-19 intensified this.”

State lawmakers interviewed for this story acknowledged that the superintendent has a tough job, particularly in a school district as unique as Hawaii’s, the only single statewide school system, which serves 162,000 kids across 257 schools in both urban and rural settings across the island chain.

But they also criticized her inability to strike alliances in the Legislature.

Unlike many other school districts funded with local property taxes, the DOE’s $2.1 billion budget comes mostly from state general funds. A friendly relationship with the finance or education chairs can serve as a lifeline in furthering the goals of the department.

“She lacked the relationships you needed to pass important initiatives. Legislators were the last to know sometimes, including the (salary) differentials, which was very risky,” said Rep. Troy Hashimoto, who represents some Maui districts.

Joan Husted, vice president of the think tank Education Institute of Hawaii and former executive director of the HSTA, said ultimately, Kishimoto’s biggest shortcoming was the fact that she “did not understand that Hawaii is a community of relationships.”

“My personal impression is that was not her style, to listen to a lot of groups of people, and pick from the most consistent advice,” she said. “I don’t think legislators made much of an impression on her. But they hold the purse strings.”

DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto after the Gov’s early learning signing.
Some state lawmakers said Kishimoto failed to forge the necessary relationships within the Capitol to achieve DOE’s goals. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kishimoto was a mainland candidate selected over another mainland candidate, who has served extensively as a school administrator but not educator or principal. Here, she was given “lots of latitude,” according to Husted, “but she just never got the signals.”

Hawaii has seen superintendents born and raised in the islands who’ve had relative staying power: Patricia Hamamoto, a former principal of McKinley High School, served from 2001 to 2009 while Kathryn Matayoshi, a businesswoman with no prior education administration experience, served from 2010 to 2017.

Hamamoto could not be reached to comment for this story while Matayoshi, a senior vice president at Hawaii Medical Service Association, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

According to a recent survey of 1,518 superintendents by The American Association of School Administrators, most superintendents serve for less than five years, with just over 13% staying for more than a decade. There are also signs across the country that the strains of leading during the pandemic are driving higher superintendent turnover.

Among the most high profile of such departures was that of New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who led the nation’s largest school system for three years, but frequently clashed with Mayor Bill de Blasio over school reopening plans during the pandemic.

Kauluwela Elementary School students and parents arrive during the COVID-19 pandemic. August 17, 2020
Many families were dissatisfied with the level of communication from the superintendent, according to Parents for Public Schools Hawaii, an advocacy group. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Not everyone felt Kishimoto should be shown the exit this year. In written testimony to the BOE, Blaine Stuart, a parent of two and substitute teacher, said the superintendent faced “undue criticism from HSTA, and the ‘social media jackals’ that they deploy” — a reference to the private Facebook group, Hawaii for a Safe Return to Schools, featuring more than 8,000 members.

“It is fair to say that Dr. Kishimoto has faced a crisis unlike any other prior Superintendent in Hawaii,” Stuart wrote. He urged the board to consider at least a “short duration contract extension” for Kishimoto “so she can complete the job of returning children to the classroom.”

But in an email, Deborah Bond-Upson, a board member of the group Parents for Public Schools Hawaii, said staff heard from many parents that they didn’t feel Kishimoto communicated well with families.

“Communication has been slow and incomplete, and there has been a lack of focus on hearing from families on important issues and practices,” she said, adding group leaders “don’t think the union issues drowned out the voice of parents.”

Asked to comment for this story, Kishimoto provided an emailed statement in which she said she had engaged, from day one, in “extensive conversations and planning” with school communities, board members, the unions, legislators and other organizations “to advocate for equitable access to high-quality educational opportunities for all students.”

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