Act 51: Can It Save The Public Schools?
The legislature passed a bill “reinventing” the public schools. Now some of the town’s most powerful business executives are trying to make it work.
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Coppa: Public schools have the opportunity to increase market share.
D’Olier : There’s another interesting phenomenon. Our independent schools are providing a lot of help and technical support to public schools. Kamehameha Schools is working on conversion charter schools and actually putting money into them. The leadership in the independent schools, particularly Robert Witt [executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools], has rolled up its sleeves and is heavily involved in helping a lot of us grapple with education issues.
Toledo: Mitch brings up charter schools. That’s another area of competition. There’s an opportunity for the charter schools to be an R&D arm for the DOE. The charter schools are out there foundering right now, they are underfunded; there are certain limits on them. We’d like to see the community come together and see where we want to go with charter schools.
Carey: Before we go on, I want to emphasize again, that for all the talk about reform, there is still a fundamental problem—taking care of the assets, the schools themselves. We used to spend $70 million to $80 million a year, and over the past several years those annual dollars have been declining. What often looks like bad management is actually the lack of resources necessary to do the basic job.
Coppa: It gets compounded by the fact that we keep repairing things that are outdated, because we can’t get the capital to put in something new.
Carey: A school out in central Oahu was repairing a shower, so they got a job spec and a budget. They rip the shower out and they realize the pipes are all rusted out underneath. Repairing the shower isn’t going to do it, but there’s not enough money in the system to repair the pipes underneath. Nobody has the ability to add dollars to the project to repair the pipes underneath, so what happened on that particular deal is they just stopped work. They went back to the process to figure out how to get more money. Next time the contractor comes back, the price has gone up. There are tons of examples like that in the state system.
Moore: When I first started teaching 3-1/2 years ago, my initial impression was the schools are better than most people think, but the system is worse. The staff is very, very talented. There are no bad actors. But it’s very difficult to spend your money optimally. We all make mistakes, but the system causes mistakes to happen all the time.
D’Olier : Because the decision makers on items like the shower that David was talking about are too far away from the action. All of us in the business world for the last 10 years have been pushing decision making way down, as close to the customer as we could get.
Toledo: When they are so far away, they don’t view the schools as a customer. It’s a real cultural shift to view them as customers. The beauty of Act 51 is that it transfers the DOE from being an overseer and an auditor and a bureaucracy into being a service provider. It’s a different mentality, in which the students, the teachers and the principals are the customers, and essentially the DOE is going to have to compete to provide services to the schools. It might come to a time where they may not be the best entity to provide that service. The schools might have to go and outsource somewhere else.
HONOLULU: So we could give schools the right to find those services from alternative providers?
Carey: That’s the goal. I don’t know if that’s in place today, but certainly that’s where it’s headed.
HONOLULU: In general, I hear you saying, we can fix the things that are keeping the schools from succeeding.
D’Olier : A lot of the things I see ahead of us are fixable. We’ve started, and I think we’re on a good track. There are more assets on the table than I realized, particularly human assets. I think there’s a lot of work to do to get there.
Coppa: There are results. Even if they’re little results, they make you want to do more. I’m confident that the problems are fixable, because when you look at them from a business model, they’re easy. You would’ve thought the systems were there, but they’re not. You come in, and you have to take a step back. I had to, because I was stunned.
Carey: The danger here, particularly for the business people, is to spot the problems and expect immediate and rapid change. That would be great if it happens, and we’ll get it in a few places, but there’s going to be some places where we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and grind.
You’re not going to put in a contract management process and work rules in a 4,000-building system in six months. It’s just not going to happen. You’re not going to put a human resources system in overnight. You’re not going to suddenly make principals brilliant business managers overnight. Those things take time; you’re going to make mistakes; you’re going to learn.
We’ve finally focused on some of the issues that can be fixed with experience and knowledge from the business community. It’s not rocket science. It’s not that tough. That’s the good news.
Horner: In my experience during this legislative process, I’ve been very impressed with Norman Sakamoto and Roy Takumi, the two educational chairs. They want to make a change, and I think they have a passion for getting this right.
Carey: Leadership is important, particularly the large-scale support from businesses. There are concerns on the part of labor which, if they aren’t managed correctly, could be a threat. This should not be a threat; this should be an opportunity.
Horner: I think that both the HGEA and HSTA have a major stake in this, and a major stake in the success. There needs to be some flexibility on their part—which I’ve seen—to make this work.
Toledo: I think our biggest challenge is for the community to stay the course. We’re on the right path now, but we have to stay the course.
Horner: The reason I’m hesitant is that there are some things we can’t change. People sometimes don’t remember that this is an agency of government. We expect it to be run like one of the private schools—that’s not going to happen. It isn’t wired like the private schools. We’re trying to change an agency of government.
The first thing we need to change is the culture. The students and parents are the customers. The teachers and the principals are the line, and the folks at the DOE are the staff. The staff works for the line, and the line works for the customers. That’s a different paradigm than state government has. But with the right leadership from the superintendent, and support from all the stakeholders, we can change that paradigm.
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