As Hawaii’s Board of Education prepares to choose a new school superintendent, the Legislature passed a bill requiring it to prioritize candidates with at least a decade of administrative experience and a “working understanding” of local leadership processes.

The measure, which now goes to the governor for his consideration, suggests lawmakers want to have influence over the selection process after a chaotic year that saw superintendent Christina Kishimoto announce she would not seek a new term after facing union-led criticism of her handling of the pandemic.

The Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor and in charge of selecting and hiring new superintendents, opposed the measure, expressing concern that it would set a precedent for legislative overreach in education policy.

“What we object to is the principle of having the Legislature define the qualifications of the superintendent whom the board is responsible for hiring,” BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne said Wednesday. “If this is allowed to continue, it opens up the door for them to be even more specific, as far as things that are not appropriate.”

House members walk from the chambers to the auditorium to Caucus during COVID-19 pandemic.
Hawaii House lawmakers walk from chambers to the auditorium to caucus in the final days of the 2021 session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Critics also accused lawmakers of sneaking the provision establishing new minimum qualifications for the superintendent into House Bill 515, which requires an audit of the Education Department’s school food services branch to determine the extent of locally sourced food.

Ige has until June 21 to indicate which bills he intends to veto.

The superintendent oversees the state’s single school district that encompasses 294 schools, 174,000 students and roughly 22,500 personnel. He or she also must navigate the politics of powerful unions representing teachers and principals as well as the unique relationship the DOE has with the state Legislature, which controls the education budget.

Kishimoto, who joined the Department of Education in 2017 under a three-year contract that was extended, agreed to serve until her contract expires on July 31. She previously had served as school superintendent in Gilbert, Arizona, and Hartford, Connecticut.

The Board of Education is currently soliciting applications for an interim superintendent who can lead the DOE starting Aug. 1 through at least the first half of the 2021-22 school year. A more robust search for a long-term superintendent is not expected to start until the fall.

HB 515 did not go to conference committee, which is where any final disagreement over a bill’s wording is hashed out. The House agreed to the Senate’s amendments to the bill, with only two lawmakers — Rep. Jeanne Kapela and Rep. Matt LoPresti — voting yes with reservations on Tuesday.

Legislative Maneuvering

The relevant section of HB 515 states that BOE members “shall prioritize candidates having a minimum qualification of 10 years of employment in a department of education, including no less than five years serving as a principal or in a higher-level position.”

It also expresses preference for “someone with a working understanding of the state’s tri-level systems of educational administration,” meaning leadership at the state, complex area and school level.

Kapela objected to the way the measure, which was originally contained in Senate Bill 76, had been tacked on last minute to the unrelated House Bill, calling it “really disappointing” that lawmakers could “cut a shady backroom deal” that avoided the scrutiny of the conference committee process.

Kapela, a freshman lawmaker representing House District 5 on Hawaii Island, said she was mainly concerned that the new legislation would prevent teachers from being considered as viable candidates. She singled out Corey Rosenlee, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association and longtime teacher at Campbell High who has no prior administrative experience, as being potentially blocked from vying for the top role.

“If we really want to uplift teachers and students, we have to make sure we have a superintendent who has served in a position of teacher,” she said. By focusing mainly on departmental administrators like principals and complex area superintendents, “we are only continuing to reproduce the exact same shortcomings with the current administration,” she said.

Kishimoto, though initially praised by board members as championing student voices and prioritizing underserved kids in special education and other areas, saw her tenure become mired in controversy over the past year as she never clearly articulated a plan for the safe reopening of Hawaii’s schools, leaving that decision mostly up to individual principals with little top-down guidance.

She was also criticized for her failure to broker relationships among state legislators who control the DOE’s $2 billion budget, which mostly relies on general fund appropriations. Some people have cited her outsider status to Hawaii as a reason for her inability to find a groove here and secure renewal for a possible contract extension.

SB 76 originally stated that eligible superintendent candidates have a minimum 10 years of service in “the department of education.” But the wording of the measure in its current form states “a department of education.” Still, lawmakers insisted that the intent of this provision was always to prioritize a local candidate.

DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto after early learning signing at the Gov’s office.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto will step down from the role once her contract expires July 31. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The spirit of the bill is that it’s a local hire,” Rep. Justin Woodson, chairman of the House Education Committee, said Tuesday after the vote.

Kapela echoed that thought. “Throughout this whole session, we’ve talked about localizing it to prioritize (local candidates),” she said. “To my understanding of the bill, it’s our DOE,” she added of what “a department of education” means exactly.

Sen. Michelle Kidani, the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee who was the main architect behind this proposal, declined to comment.

The last time the superintendent job opening was posted, the BOE specified that prerequisites include a master’s degree in education, business or public administration and a minimum five years in a public or business administration leadership role.

“The spirit of the bill is that it’s a local hire.” — Rep. Justin Woodson

Under the current bill, former superintendents like Kathryn Matayoshi would not have been qualified to serve here. It could also be argued that Kishimoto herself — who holds a doctorate in education administration and led other state school districts but was never a school principal — would have been disqualified.

Jill Tokuda, who served as Senate education committee chair from 2011 to 2014, said she found the bill “too prescriptive” and short-sighted when it comes to capturing the most qualified candidates.

“Clearly there is a lot of distrust between the legislature and the executive with regards to the oversight of public education in our state, and this is really the result of that frustration,” she said.

“But when you put it in statute, you’re now binding future superintendent appointments as well. This is not just for this one time; you’re now making this prescriptive in law — then to change it later because it’s not a good situation, that’s just not good policy,” she added.

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