The state Board of Education has begun the debate over choosing a new leader for Hawaii’s public school system to replace the outgoing superintendent, whose term ends July 31, with a proposed timeline on the agenda at a meeting Thursday.

But first a decision must be made about an interim leader to oversee the 175,000-student school system as the 2021-2022 academic year gets underway in August.

A transition committee recommended that applications be solicited for a temporary replacement to give time for a search committee to develop a list of final candidates between December and February, with the permanent replacement selected by March.

Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto speaks during board meeting.
DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto’s current term expires on July 31. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

A memo drafted by the committee outlined a fairly lengthy process that would entail public input, a search firm and an advisory committee — similar to the search that led to the selection of the outgoing superintendent, Christina Kishimoto.

Kishimoto, who started in her role in August 2017, announced last month that she would not seek a renewal of her contract amid criticism of her leadership during the pandemic. She was hired at $240,000 a year under a three-year contract that was later extended by one year.

Her replacement will be chosen by the Board of Education, but other members of the education community already have weighed in with mixed opinions about the proposed process.

All 15 complex area superintendents signed a letter urging the board to consider simply naming deputy superintendent Phyllis Unebasami as interim leader, rather than having an open application process, while the search for someone permanent is underway.

They argued that it would provide the least amount of disruption, provide stability and maintain continuity “at the highest level in our department to provide quality summer programs and safely open our schools this fall.”

The last day of the school year is May 28. The superintendent is responsible for overseeing a $2 billion budget, 22,000 full-time DOE employees and 257 schools.

Kishimoto has said she is committed to using her final months as superintendent to ensure a smooth transition to summer learning and paving the way for the full reopening of all schools for in-person learning by next school year, which begins Aug. 3.

Kishimoto, who led school districts in Arizona and Connecticut before coming to Hawaii, was heavily criticized by union officials, principals and legislators who accused her of having a poor communication style and sending mixed messages to school leaders as to when and how to most safely reopen school facilities for in-person instruction.

The roiling debate over who is most qualified to be Hawaii’s schools chief has spilled over into the legislative session this year, with one bill proposing that the next leader be someone who has served at least a decade in the state education department, at least half that time as a school principal or teacher.

The Board of Education’s transition committee proposed that a two-week application window for the interim superintendent position open Friday, with the board selecting a finalist by June 17. Assuming Kishimoto stays until the end of her current contract term, the interim official would begin on Aug. 1.

The timeline also recommended that a search firm be enlisted in October and the job opening for the permanent superintendent position be posted in the fall.

An interim superintendent would be eligible to apply for the permanent role. In fact, the temporary appointment could serve as an opportunity for the person “to demonstrate whether they are what the board wants from a permanent superintendent,” the memo said.

Conversely, the memo noted that while a strong job performance could help the interim chief’s prospects, a “poor performance in an interim capacity could hurt the candidate’s prospects.”

Deborah Bond-Upson, a board member of Parents for Public Schools Hawaii, supported the idea of choosing an interim superintendent but expressed concern that allowing the person to be eligible to apply for the permanent role could dampen the level of fearlessness with which they would tackle the job.

“It can be very effective to have an interim leader, especially in times of change,” she said. “It may seem slow to wait until October to start a search firm on the permanent superintendent search, but if the permanent search began and ended sooner, it would leave little room for the interim leader to be effective.”

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