Let governor appoint Hawaii schools superintendent, Lingle proposes
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
Drawn-out consternation over furloughs of public school teachers could add fuel to a proposal by Gov. Linda Lingle to make the schools superintendent a governor-appointed post.
The governor, a Republican in her last year in office, will re-introduce the proposal in the legislative session that begins today and she is expected to discuss it in detail during her State of the State address Monday. She's talked about the proposed amendment at least twice in the past week in addresses to the state's business community.
While it is still uncertain how far her plan will advance in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, chairmen of both the state House and Senate education committees have said they plan to hold hearings on the proposal.
Proponents say the recent "finger pointing" over furloughs of public school teachers shows a lack of accountability — that the Board of Education, the governor and the superintendent can't be blamed since everyone took part in the decision. With the superintendent as a Cabinet appointment, all roads would lead back to the governor, they say.
"It makes perfect sense to have that post within the governor's Cabinet so that we don't have all the finger pointing we have now during this furlough situation. It's ridiculous," said state Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Kähala, Hawai'i Kai). "Is DOE (the Department of Education) in charge? Is the superintendent in charge? Is the BOE in charge? Are the unions in charge? Is the Legislature in charge? Is the governor in charge? If you put it in the executive branch, you know where to point the finger," he said.
The DOE, the state's largest department, is funded by the governor and the state Legislature but governed by the elected state Board of Education. Under Article X of the state constitution, the school board has the power to hire and fire the state schools superintendent and set statewide educational policy.
Lingle said she will ask state lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment before voters this year to make the DOE a Cabinet-level department where the governor would have the authority to hire and fire the state schools superintendent. Lingle made the proposal Oct. 23, the first furlough Friday, as an apparent criticism of the state public school system, saying furloughs of teachers showed a need for more accountability. Lingle, however, had approved the teachers' contract that includes the furloughs and she held the majority of the votes during contract negotiations.
"So like any other department, if the superintendent is not performing, the governor could remove that person and bring in someone more effective. It wouldn't affect me, obviously I'm approaching my last year in office, but I feel my experience over these seven years is valid and has led me to the same conclusion that others have reached many years ago," Lingle said during a news conference on the first furlough Friday.
Those who oppose the amendment say that having a superintendent under the governor's control would politicize the job and make it less successful at advocating for public education.
"Right now the board and the superintendent, we advocate for children. We don't have to feel the repercussion that the governor has appointed us so there is loyalty to a particular agenda," said Karen Knudsen, vice chairwoman of the BOE.
"We are very independent in being able to stand up to the Legislature and to the governor and say this is what we need for education. If a superintendent was hired by the governor, it would require total allegiance. While it would make it cleaner administratively, for a governor to just tell a superintendent what to do, imagine what could happen. We could follow political ideology in the future."
Last week, Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), the chairman of the Senate Education and Housing Committee, said his committee will hear Lingle's proposals and others related to restructuring the governance of DOE.
"To what degree should the superintendent be appointment by the governor, or even if some or all of the board should be appointed — I think it is worth having that discussion and getting people's points of view," Sakamoto said.
Sakamoto noted that previous governors invited the schools superintendent to Cabinet-level meetings. Lingle did not do that with Patricia Hamamoto, who resigned as superintendent Dec. 31.
"Currently the governor could ask (interim superintendent Kathryn) Matayoshi to attend and at least understand the broader workings of government without being a gubernatorial appointee," he said.
Sakamoto noted that there are models in the state government for a governor appointee who works alongside a board, such as at the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
As for the chances of Lingle's proposal passing, Sakamoto said, "Let's see how the hearing process goes and what the outcome might be."