The leader of the teachers union, who leveled strong criticism against Superintendent Christina Kishimoto over her leadership of the public school system during the COVID-19 pandemic, is now vying for her job after she announced she won’t seek a new term.

Corey Rosenlee, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association and a longtime social studies teacher at Campbell High School, announced in a Facebook post on Thursday that he has applied for the interim superintendent role, a position some see as a trial run for the permanent position.

“During the next school year, we will face great challenges,” Rosenlee said in the post. “Yet, we also have a unique opportunity to bring about real change for Hawaii’s keiki.”

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee during DOE salary session held at McKinley Adult School.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee has served as head of the teachers’ union since 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The state Board of Education is overseeing the selection process for a new school chief, starting with a search for an interim leader who will be responsible for managing the full reopening of classrooms by the start of the new school year on Aug. 3.

Applications for that post were due by the end of day Friday. The board has said the interim superintendent will be eligible to apply for the permanent job.

Rosenlee, 48, is the only person who has publicly announced he’s applied for the role, though other names within Hawaii’s education circles have surfaced as potential candidates, such as recently retired complex area superintendent of Nanakuli-Waianae, Ann Mahi, and the current deputy superintendent Phyllis Unebasami.

Earlier this week, Mahi, a former principal at Roosevelt High, told Civil Beat she’s considering applying for the position but did not confirm it.

The issue of who ought to lead Hawaii’s public school system, which includes 174,000 students, 294 schools and about 22,500 personnel, came up in the latest legislative session, which adjourned Thursday.

Lawmakers tucked a provision establishing minimum requirements for the role into an unrelated education bill. The measure, Senate Bill 515, cleared without being subject to the conference committee process, and heads to the governor’s desk.

That measure would require the BOE to prioritize candidates who have at least 10 years experience in the Department of Education, with at least half that time as a school leader or higher, and possess “a working understanding of Hawaii’s tri-level systems of educational administration.”

That would potentially disqualify someone like Rosenlee, who has never held a school leadership role, while Mahi or other Hawaii school principals or complex area leaders, would be shoo-ins. However, the measure strongly emphasizes a local hire.

“We need someone who can hit the ground running. I think what we set forth is reasonable and the Board of Education needs to move quickly,” House Majority Leader Della au Belatti said Thursday during a media briefing.

Rosenlee, who is from Hawaii Kai, was a 1991 graduate of Kaiser High in east Oahu and the University of Hawaii Manoa.

“I’m going to see what happens. A lot depends on what happens with the process.” — Corey Rosenlee

Kishimoto, who announced in March she would not seek a renewal of her contract when it expires on July 31, is a native of New York and moved to Hawaii for the job in 2017, with an annual salary of $240,000.

Rosenlee, who makes less than that, has been the leader of the teachers union, which has about 13,500 members statewide, since July 2015. His term expires this July, and the new face of HSTA will be Osa Tui Jr., the registrar at McKinley High.

The HSTA and principals belonging to the Hawaii Government Employees Association had sharp words about Kishimoto’s leadership style during the past year due to the confusing and patchwork way students received instruction after the pandemic began in March 2020.

The union also pushed back against the DOE’s uneven policies when it came to teacher teleworking or trying to rush the reopening of schools last fall when cases were still surging.

Addressing his interest in the position after leading the charge against the superintendent in many public statements and virtual press conferences over the past year, Rosenlee pointed out how his relationship with Kishimoto had been strong in the beginning.

“I think everyone wanted the superintendent to succeed, and we had a good relationship,” he said Friday in an interview. “I think the big problem that has occurred is, when you have good relationships with the board of education and the unions, things work out smoothly, and what happened was the superintendent didn’t upset just HSTA but many parties across the state.”

Asked whether he would be interested in the longer term superintendent role, Rosenlee said, “I’m going to see what happens. A lot depends on what happens with the process.”

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