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Here's how Furlough Fridays changed the Board of Education from elected to appointed

Joel Bradshaw
The Queen Liliuokalani Building is home to the state Department of Education, and the Board of Education.

Money flowed into local school board races across the country to influence what kids can learn in public schools. But that was not the case in Hawaiʻi.

Since 1959, Hawaiʻi's education board has flipped between an elected board, and an appointed one.

Today, the state Board of Education is an appointed position. The governor nominates 11 individuals, nine of which have voting powers, to be confirmed by the state Senate.

The BOE is the policy-making body for the public education system. It can appoint the superintendent, state librarian and members of the State Public Charter Schools Commission.

But prior to 2011, voters could elect who was on the state Board of Education. But that changed in 2010.

"In the general election of 2010, there was a constitutional amendment placed on the ballot in which Hawaiʻi voters voted yes, that they wanted to change the existing board to an appointed board," said Jill Tokuda, former Senate Education Chair and current Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, District 2.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Then-state Sen. Jill Tokuda

Despite the ballot question being approved, it didn’t automatically become law. The state Legislature had to pass legislation in the following session. Tokuda introduced Senate Bill 8, which codified the change to an appointed board.

The measure later became law with former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s signature.

But there was a lot more that led to that change.

"It happened right after Gov. Linda Lingle installed Furlough Fridays," said Kim Coco Iwamoto, former Board of Education member. Iwamoto was an elected BOE member between 2006 and 2011.

At the time of her election in 2006, Iwamoto was the highest-ranking openly transgender elected official in the country. She unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat in this year’s primary election.

In 2009, state tax revenue was $525 million less than in 2008. The half-billion dollar loss resulted in the state cutting back on essential services throughout the state — including education.

The state Department of Education's budget was cut by 14% over two years — resulting in more than $450 million slashed in the annual school budget. Teachers took an 8% pay cut, but that still wasn't enough.

So the Lingle administration created Furlough Fridays. Hawaiʻi’s public schools were closed every other Friday for two years. Not only did it take away valuable school days from students, but it also had ripple effects for parents to find care for their children.

"The Board of Education at the time, we were part of the employer group when it came to signing collective bargaining," said Iwamoto. "So we would not sign off on allowing her to furlough 26 days. We could not do anymore as an employer group. We cannot tell people to come to work if we know there isn't the funds to pay them — that's against the law."

Kim Coco Iwamoto
Kim Coco Iwamoto
Kim Coco Iwamoto

Iwamoto claimed the Legislature tried to blame the BOE for Furlough Fridays — as board members were trying to hold state lawmakers accountable.

"They were really miffed by that. They didn't appreciate [it], because we're all independently elected individuals. So we're accountable only to voters," said Iwamoto. "We're not accountable to an administration, who's trying to keep us from testifying at the Legislature and putting it all at the Legislature's feet."

But Tokuda said it was the decision of voters to change the system.

"It was not the Legislature's decision, and I think that's something that is forgotten over time," said Tokuda. "The people of Hawaiʻi, in response largely to Furlough Fridays that we saw at the height of the Great Recession, really I believe was the impetus that called on groups to come together to say no more. No more will our children be robbed of education days and opportunities like this, and we should have accountability through an appointed board."

In other words, one person becomes accountable for putting the school system’s policymakers in place — the governor.

Tokuda told HPR SB8 didn't only codify an appointed BOE, but it also passed minimum school days and hours. It was also an effort to ensure public education wasn't disrupted again by an event such as Furlough Fridays.

"Literally, we had the U.S. Secretary of Education admonishing Hawaiʻi for Furlough Fridays," she said. "What the board members have had to do in the years since, it's really also been built on that foundation to make sure that it wasn't just about days and hours — it was the quality of instruction and ensuring learning."

Eleven years have passed since BOE seats became appointed. There’s currently no organized push to return to an elected board.

According to the National Education Policy Center, there is no research to suggest that one type of board is better than the other.

In the past two years, the state BOE has come under fire for policies requiring masks and vaccines at schools by groups of parents. If it was an elected board, who sits on it could be a hot-button political issue. But since members are appointed, the point is moot.

While a lot has changed in that time, Iwamoto said there’s still one core issue that continues to plague the public education system. She told HPR that it's not related to whether the board is elected or appointed, but it is related to the state Legislature.

"The most critical issue is fully funding education," she said. "The problems that are going to be addressed, and/or thinking, envisioning that happens through an appointed or elected board can only happen if there's sufficient funding."

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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