Wednesday, May 14, 2014


What do retired Lt General Frank Wiercinski and retired bank CEO Don Horner have in common?

by Larry Geller

The controversies over University of Hawaii presidential candidate Frank Wiercinski and Hawaii Board of Education Chair Don Horner’s recent reappointment have some important commonalities. We might look to the performance of Don Horner for guidance on selecting the next UH president.

Although not covered in the newspaper or even Civil Beat, testimony at the recent Senate confirmation hearing for Horner’s reappointment should be noted at least by way of caution. I’ll review some of that testimony below, because it never made the news, it was “disappeared.”

Horner and Wiercinski – proven leaders

Wiercinski’s experience as a leader is properly credited as a strong asset, as was Horner’s. That’s what they have in common. But there’s something else: neither has the kind of educational background or experience one would want for the jobs in question.

Interestingly, neither does Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, for that matter, but she was accepted enthusiastically when she was appointed. I wrote about exactly this issue one year ago:

New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg appointed Cathy Black as school chancellor in 2010 even though she had no suitable credentials. She was a publishing executive with no experience in education.

New York parents revolted, and she was booted out of there.

Kathryn Matayoshi was also appointed in 2010, by Hawaii’s appointed Board of Education. The BOE has a decided business background itself, and it appointed a person in its own image. Matayoshi is an attorney, who served, for example, as executive director of the Hawaii Business Roundtable. Like NYC’s school CEO, she also lacks credentials in the field of education.

[A tale of two Cathies—New York parents rejected a school chancellor with no educational background, Hawaii parents did not, 5/5/2013]

Bloomberg acted like the Republican mayor that he was. Hawaii may be overwhelmingly a “Democratic” state, but its voters might as well be closet Republicans. We did not react as New York parents did. We accepted that a person with no educational credentials could be an appropriate choice to lead our statewide school system.

Educational reform at the national level, though pushed by Republican and business interests, has also been embraced by Obama and congressional democrats. Go figure. But look out for the effects of these decisions as the US continues to slip in educational achievement as measured against other countries. And look out for the effects of these decisions in Hawaii.

There was not much noise when Don Horner was appointed, though he also lacked the pedagogical experience one might want for a person moving into his position.

And now retired Lt General Frank Wiercinski is being criticized mostly for his military background and less for his lack of university president credentials, though at least that issue has been raised.

The missing but important credentials

Certainly, the University of Hawaii has had a somewhat unhappy experience with its recent leadership choices. Why not try something different? That’s what the Governor’s appointments to the BOE accomplished—out with the educators, in with the organizational professionals. Ideally, you’d think, one would want both organizational and pedagogical expertise, but the BOE lacks the latter, and UH could go the same way.

Objections to Wiercinski appear to rest in part on his military background, perhaps relating also to rejection by the community of UH’s becoming a military research institution. Wiercinski does bring undisputed qualifications as an organizational leader, which certainly is something UH badly needs.

But he lacks even a master’s degree, much less a PhD, and his bachelors was from a military academy. What exactly does he know about higher education?

Although objections, such as there were, to Don Horner’s initial appointment as DOE chair centered on his purely business background including his role as CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, that background was more generally and properly viewed as his strength, something that could help bring about the reforms that voters supposedly expected from an appointed, rather than an elected, Board of Education.

After all, given Hawaii’s perpetual history of school failure, this was worth a try, right?

[It hasn’t worked so far: see Which States Have the Smartest Students? Not Hawaii (Civil Beat, 5/13/2014). ]

We can anticipate the benefits Wiercinski would bring to UH as president, but we might take caution from our experience with Hawaii’s all-business BOE.

Testimony revealed failure of the all-business BOE

Senate testimony in opposition to Horner’s re-appointment as BOE chair was reported to be his religious affiliation and background. Horner was entangled by an unsubstantiated belief that he may have influenced School Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi to change DOE rules to facilitate church use of schools for worship ceremonies.

A lawsuit filed against several church groups also revealed that poor DOE oversight of such use resulted in the loss of potentially millions of dollars to Hawaii taxpayers. Why change policy to favor the churches after that news came out?

Many testifiers isolated Horner’s religious practices as undesirable for his position. That didn’t go over well with legislators who were impressed with Horner’s reported accomplishments.

The counter-argument was stronger and appropriate: a person’s religious beliefs and off-the-job interests (Horner is pastor at New Hope Diamond Head) should not be the measure of his or her job performance. And although the superintendent changed the rules regarding church use of school property in questionable ways, there’s no smoking gun indicating she was instructed to do so by Horner.

The disappeared news

What was not reported was Horner’s disavowal of influence on DOE policy decisions during questioning by the Senate committee. The question was softball, intended, it appeared, to give Horner a chance to react to the accusations made against him. There was no followup, which might have noted that the school superintendent is responsible to the Board, and she holds her job only with their approval. It is unlikely that the Board, and its Chair, have no influence on DOE policy. Horner’s response should have been challenged, but was not.

The press also did not report the several testimonies (including mine) that the change in meeting hours, under Horner’s tenure, almost completely cuts parents, students and teachers out of participation in BOE meetings.

That’s a biggie. Instead of meeting after 3 pm and accepting any parent testimony, as the prior board did, the BOE starts in the morning, and testimony is strictly timed and limited. The daytime meeting hours even challenge the student board member to lose class time in order to attend meetings, according to one testifier.

Testimony also indicated that the BOE no longer meets on Neighbor Islands, giving parents outside of Oahu no chance to provide testimony on the record to the Board.

The press also missed that the imposed two-minute cutoff and the restriction of testimony to agenda items gags parent input.

It’s as though a wall has been constructed by the BOE around its meetings, which are indeed very businesslike without the buzz of pesky parents demanding to be heard. 

In other words, Horner’s businesslike approach has had the effect of disenfranchising and disrespecting each of the primary stakeholders in Hawaii’s educational system-parents, teachers, and students. They have been locked out, rather than embraced, under Horner’s leadership. I was not present, but parents reported to me that even President Obama’s half-sister was abruptly cut off at the two-minute mark during her testimony on a social studies issue. Most boards, commissions and the Legislature show more courtesy than that by exercising some flexibility in the length of testimony.

And who would want to give up a day’s work to speak for only two minutes to an uncaring BOE?

I learned from Senate testimony that there are no more televised or recorded sessions. Not good.

Poor media reporting hides this criticism of “business” leadership of an educational body.

If all of the testimony had been duly reported in our commercial media, there would be some useful guidance for those considering repeating the BOE experience at the University.


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