The Hawaii Board of Education has denied a Kahuku mother’s petition for a new rule to require the state Department of Education to hold public meetings ahead of proposed developments near school facilities but ordered the department to nonetheless develop a system for public feedback.

The vote occurred Thursday as board members convened in a special virtual meeting to reconsider Sunny Unga’s petition for a new rule after tabling the matter in December due to concerns over the public’s ability to adequately weigh in on the matter.

Unga filed her petition a year ago, later suing the Board of Education under the state’s Sunshine Law for initially denying her petition behind closed doors.

Sunny Unga filed her petition over concerns that the DOE commented on a wind turbine project without first seeking Kahuku community input. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Her petition was prompted by concerns that the DOE didn’t seek input from the Kahuku school community before commenting on an environmental impact statement about local wind turbines in 2016.

In September, the Board reached a settlement with Unga in which it agreed to rehear her petition in an open forum. BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne recommended denial of the petition and the board voted it down on Thursday.

Payne said the changes requested were not within the agency’s purview but acknowledged Unga’s concerns were “valid” and could be “accomplished another way.”

“The Board expects the DOE to develop a system for feedback from the school community when the DOE is asked to comment on the impact of industrial projects near schools,” she told Civil Beat on Friday.

She added that DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto is expected to get back to the board within a month on how that mechanism can be accomplished, but said Kishimoto “agreed that it could be done.”

The board received more than 60 pages of written testimony on the matter, but not everyone was able to testify at the virtual meeting, according to Unga. Some could not unmute themselves or be heard because those functions are controlled by the facilitator of the Board of Education meetings, she said.

“It took a lawsuit for the Board of Education to abide by the Sunshine Law and provide my petition a public hearing, and yet the irony is, they were still violating the law in how they were conducting the meetings,” she said.

The BOE has been meeting virtually since the pandemic began last spring, in audio-only mode.

Under the state’s Sunshine Law, all boards and agencies in Hawaii are required to provide notice of a meeting six days before it takes place, including laying out the agenda and giving the public an opportunity to provide written or oral testimony.

Lance Collins, Unga’s attorney, said developing a system for community feedback will alert the public to large-scale projects in a more open, transparent manner.

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