Hawaii’s Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said Tuesday that the debate over whether to renew her contract when it expires in July has become an “unnecessary distraction” that drove her decision to step down but promised to remain focused on efforts to reopen more schools during the time she has left.

The announcement came as Kishimoto faced criticism from the state teachers’ union, principals and others over her handling of the coronavirus pandemic and her communications style. Kishimoto said her last day will be July 30.

“That matter related to my contract is both a personnel matter and a personal matter,” she told reporters during an afternoon Zoom call after announcing she would not seek a contract renewal. “What I am seeing is an unnecessary distraction to what we need to be focused on. It’s really in the interest of not having my contract be a distraction to keeping our eyes on what has to happen for students.”

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during meeting.
Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, shown here in 2019, says she won’t seek renewal of her contract when it expires at the end of July. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Kishimoto joined the DOE in 2017 under a three-year contract at a $240,000 annual salary. That contract was extended by a year in early 2019. She is responsible for overseeing 257 DOE schools and a total staff of roughly 42,000 DOE employees.

She praised school staff and her team during the call, saying she was proud of them and that in the past four years she has “pushed innovation and new thinking” around the issue of widening access to education for all students.

But the singular focus around her contract renewal in recent weeks has been placed on the last year — a highly unusual, trying period due to the complications over the pandemic and plans for the safe return of students and staff for a system serving 162,000 public school students.

The question of whether to renew her contract had been on the agenda for a BOE human resources subcommittee meeting last week, prompting a flood of opposition from teachers represented by the Hawaii State Teachers Association who criticized what they called poor communication and leadership during the pandemic. A letter signed by principals represented by the Hawaii Government Employees Association also voiced dissent.

The Board of Education deferred the debate last week over renewing her contract.

When asked whether she blames the union for criticism of her job performance, Kishimoto said only that her track record with the teacher’s union can’t be defined by the tensions during last 12 months.

“We were at the table together the entire time,” she told reporters. “We have been working together, we meet when we need to meet, we did a great job together around pushing the salary differentials for teachers, something that wasn’t supported outside the DOE necessarily.”

In a brief written statement Tuesday, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said, ”We wish Christina Kishimoto success in her future endeavors while we look forward to working towards securing the schools our keiki deserve.”

As for what is next for Kishimoto, she said she did not know.

“I’m leaving myself open right now. I don’t know what my next step plans are. My next step is to get us through the rest of the school year and transition us well,” she said.

It will fall to the state Board of Education, which comprises nine voluntary members appointed by the governor, to choose her successor.

Kishimoto had received positive reviews in the first few years of her tenure, but her relationship with the BOE and the teachers’ union clearly took a more acrimonious turn as the state became mired in pandemic woes with teachers and students forced to adapt to distance learning.

“My next step is get us through the rest of the school year and transition us well.” — Superintendent Christina Kishimoto

Kishimoto said she learned about the BOE human resources subcommittee’s intention to start discussing the contract “at the same time the public did” and that she had expected to have “a sit-down conversation” with the board first.

“Because it became a distraction so quickly, I’m just not interested in these distractions and I don’t think it’s good for this district,” she said.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne said she was “not totally surprised” by the timing of Kishimoto’s announcement given mounting opposition aired in public in the last week. But she also said she respected the decision, saying Kishimoto “did give it her all and she tried very hard” during her tenure.

“I think it was a respectful response to the circumstances that we’re facing right now with public education in Hawaii. She wants to focus on getting the immediate tasks done,” Payne said. “There would have been a lot more public controversy coming up next week Thursday if we had to discuss her contract, and that takes the energy out of what we need to do to safely reopen schools for all students.”

Kishimoto announced her plans earlier Tuesday in a statement that the DOE said had been shared with Gov. David Ige, the Board of Education and Department of Education employees.

In her statement, Kishimoto listed her successes as “amplifying student voice, elevating teacher leadership and vision, and setting bold strategic goals around student promises focused on innovative ideas and solutions toward a thriving and sustainable state.”

“It has been my great privilege to serve the students of Hawaii the past four years. This is a generation of students who will lead as global change-makers with great aloha,” she said in an emailed statement.

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