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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 9, 2001

Big Island DOE district chief retiring

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — As Big Island district superintendent for the Department of Education for the past two years, he attended weekend art openings and spelling bees to present awards.

As principal for 12 years at national award-winning Waiakea High, he rode the football team bus and marched, in step, with the high school band during parades.

Danford Sakai was the epitome of a hands-on administrator. When his retirement takes effect Aug. 22, it will end almost 34 years as a teacher and administrator in a career that included six O'ahu and Big Island schools, from Wai'anae to Hilo.

Some wondered aloud if he was a micro-manager, possibly inhibiting band directors or coaches; a retired athletic director said he would have been uncomfortable having a principal in the locker room and traveling with the team.

Another said the involvement was Sakai's signature.

For him — and his students — it worked.

Sakai twice went to Washington to receive national Blue Ribbon School awards in 1989 and 1996.

Waiakea also was chosen as one of the "Best of the States" by a national magazine, and Sakai was named the state's outstanding administrator in 1990 by the librarians' association.

That was the same year the Lions Clubs of Hawai'i picked him as the state's outstanding educator.

"You have to have order and organization," said Sakai, 57.

His Big Island career started when he came here in 1982 to become principal of Hilo Intermediate School. Three years later, he began his long, successful tenure at Waiakea High, which at one point was the state's largest public school.

Despite the necessity of converting bathrooms into classrooms, Waiakea turned out National Merit scholars and successful teams while containing vandalism, drugs and other problems.

Sakai played a direct hand in running the school's security program. He credits his success there with "the strong parent support and a good staff."

Sakai, like former Hilo High principal John Masuhara, who helped reshape that school from a sometimes unruly place, made no bones about his disciplinary standards.

"Sure, I was a disciplinarian," said the man who used to jog before dawn up steep Waianuenue Avenue with principal Patrick Seely of Princess Kapi'olani School.

By 6 a.m., a showered Sakai was on his office phone, returning the calls from the afternoon before. He was noted for his quick responses to teachers or parents, even to a news reporter.

He was at Waiakea until 1997, when he was promoted to deputy superintendent of education for the Big Island district.

Two years later he moved up to the top spot.

He saw his role as superintendent as "problem-solving and conflict resolution" — terms that may sound like words from a veteran bureaucrat.


At E.B. de Silva Elementary School in Hilo last year, he intervened with parents to deal with a poorly managed remodeling project that left handicapped students stranded at times. He also rescheduled noisy activities until after school.

Recently in Kona he resolved a water-line problem that threatened to delay the opening of Konawaena Middle School at Kealakekua.

"You have to deal directly; sometimes going around the bureaucracy," said Sakai. "You have to be the model."

Sakai, a product of McKinley High on O'ahu, believes that Hawai'i's public education system works.

It will continue to do so when "the focus is on the student," he said.

"That's been my end line."