Veteran businessman Warren Haruki says he accepted the position to help students in the public school system.

The new chairman of the Board of Education may have more experience in corporate boardrooms than in schools. But he says that’s an advantage, not a weakness.

Warren Haruki, who has led several companies including most recently Grove Farm on Kauai, was appointed to chair the 11-member panel by Gov. Josh Green in June. He replaced Bruce Voss, who served on the board for eight years.

“I was approached by the governor to consider being on the board and to be chair,” Haruki said. “I thought long and hard but ultimately I decided to do it because it’s all for the students.”

The Kauai native said Thursday that he has spent his first month on the job in learning mode, talking to former board members, community leaders, business associates and others.

Bruce Voss, left, served on the Board of Education for eight years. He stepped down from the board after Gov. Josh Green replaced him as chair. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

The decision to replace Voss surprised many. Former BOE Chair Catherine Payne, who served from 2018 to 2022, said the transfer of power could have been handled better, but she expressed support for Haruki.

“I know that Bruce Voss was not notified about the change until it was already made and the public was notified,” Payne said. 

Payne had been a teacher, vice principal and principal with Hawaii’s public schools. Voss was an attorney who had served on the board since 2016 and was named chair in 2022.

Payne commended Haruki’s commitment to support schools even though he’s not an educator. Haruki is listed as a co-founder of the nonprofit Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation, which supports innovation.

“His heart is definitely in the right place,” Payne said. “It behooves all of us to support him.”

The June 2 press release from the governor’s office announcing Haruki’s appointment said Voss would continue to serve as an at-large member, but Voss has stepped down. He declined to comment on the record for this story.

When asked about his priorities, Haruki pointed to the strategic plan that was adopted earlier this year and sets out goals for the state’s 258 public schools over the next six years. It focused on boosting math and reading skills as well as recruiting teachers and ensuring school facilities are safe.

Warren Haruki Headshot Board of Education chairman
Warren Haruki, the new Board of Education chairman, has led many companies including most recently Grove Farm. (BOE)

The implementation plan also included expanding student opportunities through internships in partnership with employers, community partners, military and higher education institutions.

Haruki said supporting teachers is the key to success, noting recent shortages.

“We need to fill our teacher positions. We need to not only fill them, but we need to fill them with qualified teachers,” he said. “And we need to then constantly train them and give them professional development opportunities.”

The Board of Education is responsible for developing policies for the statewide school district, the only one in the country that operates as a single school system, and for hiring and evaluating the superintendent of the Department of Education.

Haruki said the BOE would seek a working relationship “that is based on a lot of communications and a lot of respect,” with the Department of Education that it oversees. “We’re certainly not a board that will rubber stamp things.”

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the department has discussed plans with the BOE to set students up for success by encouraging the idea of having a personal plan for their future while still in high school.

As a businessman, Haruki said that having diverse minds on a public board, like the BOE, is critical to a more effective work environment.

“I have decades of being in business leadership positions, and I found significant value from having done it,” he said.

In addition to his role as president and CEO of Grove Farm, a Kauai-based development company, Haruki was previously the CEO of Maui Land and Pineapple Co., and a trustee and chair of the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust, according to the BOE website.

Haruki pointed to other former business leaders-turned-BOE chairs Don Horner and Lance Mizumoto as precedents.

“We need a legal expert. We need a financial expert,” Haruki said. “We’re solving big, big problems, so that diversity is very helpful to come up with.” 

He also stressed the need to shape Hawaii into a place that is affordable and full of opportunities that will encourage local graduates to stay in the island state.

Haruki said the outmigration of Hawaii graduates is a byproduct of various reasons including the high cost of living, a lack of affordable pre-K centers, fewer job opportunities and lower wages.

“I think the vast majority will say they want to come back to live in Hawaii,” Haruki said about students who move out-of-state. “But they probably can’t afford it.”

Haruki’s position is interim until confirmed by the state Senate.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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