School Board: Elect Or Appoint?

The voters of Hawaii have an important election coming up, probably the most important one we’ve faced in years. Not only are some key positions up for grabs, there are some earthshaking races for the Board of Education and the constitutional question of whether we should have an appointed or elected school board.

This has been a hot topic since statehood. In the good old days, the BOE was appointed. A lot of important people didn’t like that, because the question of equal representation haunted the politicians. There are few school boards in the United States that have not wrestled with the question of accountability as related to an elected vs. appointed school board. Simply put, there is no conclusive evidence that one is better than the other.

Another hot topic is the benefit of a centralized vs. a decentralized public education system. In Hawaii, we are truly unique because we are a noncontiguous state separated by water and wildly different economic environments. If the school districts were left to fend for themselves financially, obviously several on smaller islands with fewer taxpayers would not be able to fund a viable public school system. Somewhere, somehow, there must be guaranteed equity in the system to ensure all the youngsters in the state of Hawaii get a fair portion of the budget for public education. That’s what we are supposed to have with an elected board.

Alas, something went wrong with the system. Members of the Board of Education are elected by a small portion, mostly unionized, and naturally vote accordingly. They do not feel obligated to the people in their district, although they probably should. It is interesting to note that all of Hawaii’s governors past and present have come out publicly in support of an appointed school board. The idea is there will be more accountability guaranteed. If what these experts say is true, why didn’t it happen the last time we had an appointed school board? What went wrong?

Keep in mind that the governor vetoed a bill asking for an appointed board because it was too similar to the way members of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents are selected – a small group of individuals chosen by the Legislature sends an even shorter list of possible appointees to the governor, who then selects those who serve.

If you have followed this process over the years, in the appointment of judges and other important cabinet positions, the legislators are the ultimate decision-makers on who will serve the public’s best interest. Anyone who is elected to the school board in this election will be out of a job if the appointed school board amendment is passed. What happens then? Well, the bill goes back to the legislators to come up with something that will satisfy all of the desires of the next governor. It’s not impossible that the proposal will get vetoed again.

By the way, if you hear someone say the school board represents the teachers, remind them that the school board members represent their districts. Hawaii State Teachers Association, Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers represent the teachers.

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