Board of Education seats contested

Two of the three seats representing the Neighbor Islands at the state Board of Education are up for election this fall.

Voters will not see the two candidates seeking Kaua‘i’s 7th Department seat on the primary ballot Saturday because they automatically advance to the general election on Nov. 4.

But voters will see the four candidates running for the Big Island’s 1st Department seat. The top two vote-getters in that race will move on to the general election.

The 14-member Board of Education consists of 10 representatives from the 1st District, which covers O‘ahu; three from the 2nd District, comprised of one member from Maui, Big Island and Kaua‘i; and a non-elected student position.

Together, they have the power to formulate policy and to exercise control over the public school and library systems through its executive officers, the superintendent of education and the state librarian, both of whom the board appoints.

Lihu‘e resident Maggie Cox, 66, is seeking a second four-year term on the board.

Although there are no term limits for the unpaid position, Cox said if she gets reelected it will probably be her last stint.

The retired principal, who has been in education some 30 years, said she is running again because there are some initiatives she would like to see through to completion.

“It’s in the classroom that makes the difference,” Cox said. “Whatever I can do to help get more resources there, I will.”

She said she wants to focus on an initiative started during her last term that deals with the board’s recognition diploma for high achieving students.

Standards to graduate with honors will be aligned throughout the states, she said, demanding a tough curriculum that extends beyond obtaining a certain grade point average.

“It’s really a global world,” Cox said. “Our kids need to be able to compete anywhere.”

The candidate said she plans to continue working on establishing partnerships with the business community, universities and unions that will help move more students into more rigorous programs and help them succeed.

Cox’s challenger for the Kaua‘i seat is 57-year-old Lawrence Fillhart of Kapa‘a, a carpenter and former teacher. He did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.

Online sources say Fillhart supports investing more in education, creating incentives to bring in high quality teachers and judging schools based on their results.

In the race for the 2nd District’s Big Island seat, first-time candidates are facing a long-time incumbent.

Herbert Watanabe, 80, was first elected to the board in 1996. He said his nearly 40 years as a professional educator and thorough knowledge of the system’s inner-workings and its budgetary process qualify him for another term.

“With that experience I can help the board because I understand and know how the department is organized and how the department operates,” he said. “We are right now in a critical period … I know what is not being done, what is done and what can be done.”

Watanabe, of Hilo, pointed at the board’s recognizing him to serve as its chair or vice chair for 10 of the past 12 years. He also was the former vice principal of Kapa‘a when it was a K-12 school and taught elsewhere on Kaua‘i.

“Is the system broken? It may be scratched,” he said. “It’s not perfect … but in the years I have been on the board I have seen progress. I feel proud of the system.”

His challengers disagree.

Kamuela resident Bill Sanborn, 61, said the main reason he is running is to get people to focus on how important education is to the state’s future and is working to “make sure someone other than the incumbent gets in.”

The real estate and mortgage professional said if he is elected he would work to decentralize the system and put more money into the classroom.

Sanborn, who spent his youth in Hanalei and still has taro farms there, said he is a proponent of having more home rule, but was unsure if the state was ready to have local school boards.

The candidate described himself as “noisy,” unafraid to voice concerns when warranted.

For starters, Sanborn said he would push to have a financial audit of the department.

“This seems to be where the thing’s falling down,” he said. “The rubber meets the road in the classroom. The teachers need to be supported, they don’t need more administrative responsibilities.”

Sanborn maintains several group affiliations, including head of the Waimea Community Association, and advocates safe routes to schools for children.

“I’ve run for political office two times, but with an ‘R’ on my chest and George Bush on my ankle it was not an easy task,” he said, adding that he is moderate when it comes to political parties.

If elected, Sanborn said he would work hard to not be alienated by the other board members for going against the grain. He said he would ask questions, present “bright ideas,” and then report back to the constituency to see what they think he should do.

Laupahoehoe resident Paul Bryant, 63, said in a word, he is running for office out of “frustration.”

“The BOE has been just unhelpful in all the problems that we’ve been having educationally here,” he said. “The current incumbent says he has no power. … I have a good head of steam on the frustration level.”

Bryant moved to Hawai‘i from Tokyo some 20 years ago and his first jobs were teaching remedial Japanese and English and as a fourth-grade reading coach.

“Unfortunately, the pay scale was so pathetic I had to start thinking about a better job,” he said, adding that he runs a fine arts gallery.

“There’s so many problems in each school but when you look at them overall, they’re no longer little molehills,” Bryant said. “They clump together into nice little mountains. It seems someone should have been asking about these problems all along the way.”

If elected, the farmer and art critic said he would ask the tough questions and demand answers.

“Are we being well-served by a superintendent who doesn’t seem to tackle the problems and a BOE that doesn’t raise the question?” Bryant said. “Where the hell is the leadership? Why is the Board of Education not acting like a board of directors? The students are the product of the company.”

The candidate said the questions can be answered with a new way of looking at things, which he would provide as a board member.

Kea‘au resident Patrick Walsh, 46, said he is seeking a seat to get the board to implement a clear-cut, systemwide conduct code to support order in the classroom.

“We need change in our school systems from the top down,” he said. “I care about our kids because I have six of my own. I know I can work with the other board members to represent the needs of our Hawai‘i public schools and be a strong voice for the Big Island public schools. I will work hard to get a fair share of student and teacher resources into our classrooms.”

As a former hotel and restaurant executive and owner of a food processing business, Walsh said he sees areas for improvement within the BOE.

The board must expand the national program for science, technology, engineering and math to every student, he said, and provide a curriculum that improves student academic performance and reduces the increasing trend in dropout rates.

Walsh said he supports charter schools and would work to expand local control and eliminate wasteful bureaucracy in order to save rural schools from closure.

All the candidates agreed that teachers need the support of the community and parents to help the students succeed.

More on the candidates is available at www.paul-bryant.info, www.walshforhawaii.com, www.herbwatanabe.com or by e-mail at coxj024@hawaii.rr.com and Herbert_Watanabe@notes.k12.hi.us

For more information, visit hawaii.gov/elections

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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