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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

BOE races include prominent people who want reform

 •  Few free rides in election
 •  Candidates for the Sept. 18 primary election

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Education Writer

A former U.S. congressman. A respected financier. A prominent attorney. A former state representative. The debate over education reform has drawn some bigger names into what have traditionally been rather sleepy campaigns for the state Board of Education.

Seven of the school board's 13 elected seats are up for re-election this year and several candidates said yesterday they feel the board is poised to play a vital role in improving Hawai'i's public schools.

The Democratic-controlled state Legislature approved a reform plan this year that will give schools more power over money and direction. Gov. Linda Lingle has said that she will continue to push to break up the state Department of Education into local districts with elected boards.

The Republican governor has said that she would make education reform an issue against Democrats in state House and Senate elections this fall and, while school board elections are theoretically nonpartisan, Lingle supporters did help recruit candidates for the board.

Several candidates said yesterday that, Capitol politics aside, the climate is ripe for change after years of stagnation.

"If I can't make change, or we as a board cannot make change, I want to be in a position to tell the people why," said Cecil Heftel, a Democrat who represented Honolulu in Congress for a decade.

Heftel is one of several high-profile candidates for three at-large O'ahu seats on the board. Board members Carol Gabbard and Shelton Jim On chose not to pursue re-election, so the only at-large incumbent running again is Garrett Toguchi.

Robert Midkiff, who led the Bishop Trust and the American Trust and has been active in the Hawai'i Theatre Center, is an at-large candidate. He was instrumental in starting the Good Beginnings Alliance, which has promoted early-childhood education. "I would like to make sure that children are ready for school and schools are ready for children," he said.

Darwin Ching, an attorney and former deputy attorney general, said he was moved to run to advance Lingle's school board proposals, which were opposed by the school board and defeated by the Legislature. He said he favors splitting the DOE into local districts with elected boards and shifting more power down to the local level.

"Now is the time to move forward and start talking about different things," said Ching, who was encouraged by Lingle supporters. "It's about giving responsibility back to the parents, teachers and principals."

Lei Ahu Isa, a former state representative, said she was recruited by Lingle supporters. She said she still wants to listen to both sides on local school boards, but believes the board will have an important oversight role if schools get more authority over finance. "It's really important that we put people on the board with budget backgrounds because schools are going to have more money and autonomy," Ahu Isa said.

Shannon Wood, a Windward community activist who has fought dumping on Kapa'a Quarry Road, is also running for an at-large seat.

Breene Harimoto, the school board's chairman, said the caliber of the candidates could make the elections much more visible than in the past. The last school board race that attracted widespread attention involved Gabbard in 2000, who was opposed by gay-rights activists who objected to the Gabbard family's campaigns against gay marriage.

"I think on the positive side this will bring more attention to education," he said.

Harimoto, who is running for re-election for a Leeward seat, is facing Shad Kane, a retired police lieutenant urged by Lingle supporters to run. Kane said he wants to preserve the Hawaiian cultural history of rapidly growing areas such as Kapolei and sees parallels to the governor's calls for decentralizing public education. "It's trying to get people more involved on the community level," Kane said.

In a Honolulu district seat, Denise Matsumoto is running for re-election in a race that includes former board member Keith Sakata.

Two school board seats are also up on the Neighbor Islands. Herbert Watanabe is running for re-election on the Big Island against candidates that include Nadia Quintana-Davies, a former California teacher. On Kaua'i, former board chairman Mitsugi Nakashima and former principal Margaret Cox are among the candidates seeking to replace Sherwood Hara, who is not running for re-election.

Staff writer Eloise Aguiar contributed to this report. Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.