As Hawaii’s search for a permanent school superintendent unfolds in the coming weeks, one person certain to be a contender is Keith Hayashi, the longtime school principal who has served in the top job in the school system on an interim basis since August.

“I am in the process right now of finalizing (my application),” Hayashi said last week.

The window to apply for the Hawaii Department of Education chief executive role — in which annual pay could be as high as $250,000 — had been due to close Friday. On Monday, however, the state Board of Education extended the deadline to April 12. The board had planned to interview candidates in April and announce its choice by May.

With the BOE’s nationwide search for the next leader of Hawaii’s 160,000-student single-district school system already underway, Hayashi is intent on staying in office and expanding on the work he’s done since August, when he first stepped into the role.

“The focus will be assessing where we are currently, looking at the work we have done, continuing to assess those areas and really building on that to ensure we’re meeting the needs of our students,” Hayashi said.

Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi.
Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi has signaled interest in the permanent superintendent role from the start of his interim tenure. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Yet whether Hayashi’s eight-month track record leading Hawaii’s school system will give him an edge over other applicants is up for debate.

Hayashi was selected by the board over 14 other candidates to serve in the interim role last May, when then-Superintendent Christina Kishimoto decided not to seek a contract renewal after four years on the job. Her leadership during the pandemic had been criticized by both the teacher’s union and principals over what some saw as the DOE’s clumsy handling of adjustments to remote learning and poor communication of Covid-19 guidance to schools.

As interim superintendent, Hayashi won praise in some quarters for his steady focus on reopening all of DOE’s 257 schools for full in-person instruction at the start of the 2021-22 school year after a challenging year-and-a-half of remote or hybrid learning due to the onset of the pandemic.

Hayashi also earned high marks from some school principals and complex area leaders for improving communication — a testament, they say, to the Kaimuki High grad’s deep roots in the DOE and willingness to listen and gather input from school-level leadership. He first joined the DOE as a teacher in 1989 and was principal at Waipahu High since 2009.

“Keith’s relationships with people and various units of the department was a big part of his success,” said Chad Farias, complex area superintendent of the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa region on Hawaii island.

Farias points to Hayashi’s handling of the decision to continue an indoor mask requirement for schools, despite Hawaii’s lifting of the statewide indoor mask mandate as of March 26.

“That’s a highly political decision,” Farias said. “People are asking, ‘Why? No one else is (requiring masks indoors).’ It’s because we were shutting down entire classrooms where kids are forced to quarantine five days when (exposed to) a positive case.”

Farias said Hayashi took the time to explain the rationale to complex area leaders.

Campbell HS girls track members practice on the field.
One of Hayashi’s first moves as interim superintendent was to mandate vaccinations for participation in school athletics. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

But other educators find fault with Hayashi’s communication of DOE Covid policies.

Jessica Lee Loy, a kindergarten teacher at Holualoa Elementary on the Kailua-Kona side of Hawaii island, said she first found out from the media that masks would be optional outdoors on her school campus.

The DOE announced an outdoor mask-optional policy on March 8, effective the following day.

“I know we were all kind of scrambling the next day how we were going to make (the change) happen, safely,” she said.

Communication Is Key

Hayashi has also come under fire for DOE’s inability to clearly articulate plans for temporarily shifting students to remote learning and quarantining students, when necessary.

Hayashi defends his record, saying clear guidance was in place for each school.

“There definitely was a plan,” he said. “The plan was to look at each (school) on a case-by-case basis. There was no one-size-fits-all because keeping schools open was so important.”

“I know there were calls from people (saying), ‘We need a number — that threshold when you close schools,’” Hayashi said. “But I couldn’t give a number because each case is individual in nature, and specific to that school.”

Beyond issues of Covid safety protocols, some in the education community say Hayashi has not done enough to explain how DOE plans to use hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Covid aid to address academic and social setbacks.

“We really wanted some clarity on how (DOE) was going to use the funds to help lift up our students and get back on track,” said Cheri Nakamura, head of He’e Coalition, a group of Hawaii education advocates. “It didn’t seem like the DOE had any specific goals. They wanted progress, but what does that look like? We won’t be sure until we get some data.”

Students at Kea'au High School enjoy recess.
While the DOE shifted to an outdoor mask-optional policy on March 9, it continues to require masks be worn indoors on school campuses, with limited exceptions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Joe Halfmann, principal at Pearl City High, said DOE communication under Hayashi has been “much improved” but there is “still room for growth.”

“I don’t think any individual could come in and change the dynamics,” he said, adding it’s not just relationships within the DOE the superintendent must navigate but also with the state Department of Health and Board of Education.

“Managing those organizations, all together, is probably beyond any one individual,” Halfmann said.

Hayashi assumed the interim superintendent role after Covid vaccines became widely available, but also when the delta and omicron surges disrupted school operations.

Hawaii schools, like public schools nationwide, were also hampered by a shortage of substitute teachers and bus drivers, and faced careening rates of student absenteeism, especially in remote areas.

Hayashi said that in response to those challenges, he invoked a school code to allow noninstructional staff to fill in at classrooms where needed, reached out to the hospitality worker union to see if they could provide school staff and allowed those with a high school diploma to serve as substitute teachers, contingent on a background check.

“At times, I felt helpless because it’s not something I could help and provide control over myself,” Hayashi said of the staffing shortages. “When situations like that arise and it’s beyond my control, it’s great for people to stand up and ask, ‘How can I help?’”

Before Hayashi was selected for the interim role, the BOE voted to prevent the incoming leader from permanently filling vacancies for deputy or assistant superintendent, complex area superintendent or DOE director.

“The board really wanted someone interim to not make too many movements, to not change many things,” said Farias, the KKP complex area superintendent. “I thought the parameters put on the position did not make it attractive for most people.”

Department of Education board meeting.
The Board of Education met on March 3 to approve a revised job description for the DOE superintendent. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

As a result of the board’s move, Hayashi largely inherited Kishimoto’s leadership team. There have been some departures, giving Hayashi a bit of leeway in elevating people to top positions — but only on a temporary basis.

Those constraints have not seemed to ruffle Hayashi.

“I’m not the permanent (superintendent) and the permanent (superintendent) will need to make changes, I get that,” he said. “But at the same time, I have a 100% confidence in the people we are working with now.”

Turnover Is Common

The BOE’s job description for the permanent superintendent role is twice as long as the one used when Kishimoto was hired. It emphasizes a strong educational background and executive leadership skills.

BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne said it would not be appropriate to comment on the prospects of any contender for the position, whether they’ve formally announced or not.

But she said the board prefers “someone with a deep understanding and appreciation for the culture of Hawaii and what is important to the people here.”

Payne added that while the applicant pool so far includes “more than a dozen” candidates from outside Hawaii, even the U.S., only a couple actually hail from the state.

Nationwide, historical data shows school superintendents typically have short runs.

Close to two-thirds of superintendents stay in their position for five years or less, according to a recent survey from the American Association of School Administrators. The stress of the pandemic has further driven up the number of departures.

Hubert Minn, a former BOE member who left the board in 2018, said he gives Hayashi “a lot of credit” for taking on the role and believes he “cares a lot about the students.”

“I kind of feel the department has a lot of problems and it’s not going to take one person to change everything,” he said. “You can be the best guy, but for the system, it doesn’t work out.”

In the search for a permanent superintendent, the BOE has enlisted an outside group, the National Association of State Boards of Education, under a $150,000 contract, to conduct a preliminary vetting of candidates.

Robert Hull, a consultant with NASBE, said a week ago there were “several (applicants) that meet full criteria and who would be really excellent candidates moving forward.”

“It’s a unicorn, isn’t it?” said Nakamura of He’e Coalition, regarding the ideal candidate for the job. “It’s someone who can build a team, who can address all these things. You can’t get everything in one person. That person has to be clever enough to address all the interests of the DOE.”

An Important Note

If you consider nonprofit, independent news to be an essential service that helps keep our community informed, please include Civil Beat among your year-end contributions.

And for those who can, consider supporting us with a monthly gift, which helps keep our content free for those who need it most.

This year, we are making it our goal to raise $225,000 in reader support by December 31, to support our news coverage statewide and throughout the Pacific. Are you ready to help us continue this work?

About the Author