EDU committee defends, confirms Don Horner

Concerns raised by the LGBT community and its supporters over Horner's ability to keep his faith out of his job backfire.

Will Caron

“More than anyone else in this room, I have spent much, much time with Chair Horner in discussions about public education, what we want for our students and what we want for our schools,” said chair of the Senate Committee on Education (EDU) Jill Tokuda at yesterday’s confirmation hearing for Board of Education (BOE) chair Donald Horner.

“Senator Kidani and I are probably among the most liberal [senators] in this body; I believe in a strong separation of church and state,” she continued. “And having spent as much time as I have with chair Horner, very intimately, discussing every possible issue you can imagine, from school health to civil rights ... to facilities to public lands to how many meetings they’re going to have, I have never, at any point, ever, whatsoever felt that he was trying to impose his religious views on our school system. I assure you, I would know it if he were trying to do it. So I wholeheartedly feel that this person; chair Horner; Don Horner the individual, who has given thousands of hours to this school system, is more than fully qualified to continue in his capacity as chair.”

“I am a strong advocate of free speech, but not false speech,” echoed Senator Sam Slom. “There were so many outrageous and false statements made this afternoon, and ad-homonym attacks, yet the issue was the administration of the Board of Education. People came here with an agenda and they had very few comments that were related to the Board of Education.”

That’s because the majority of the groups and individuals that testified against Don Horner object to him from a civil rights and separation of church and state standpoint. The EDU committee, however, found these claims to be either irrelevant or unprovable.

Kathryn Xian, the Executive Director of anti-human trafficking non-profit GiRL FeST Hawaii and candidate for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional seat, brought up the Tilton memo saying it was “a clear conflict of interest and a union between church and state.” Xian also brought up a BOE-recognized complaint centering around Don Horner’s alleged use of the phrase, “shuckin’ and jivin.’”

“It’s a racial slur accusing African Americans of employing deceit with Euro-Americans in power,” she said. “These types of hurtful, derogatory terms are in the vocabulary of Don Horner. I beg you to take into consideration the LGBT youth community, who are 8 times more likely to commit suicide as a result of bullying, before making this decision.”

When questioned about these charges by Sen. Slom, Horner stated that the memo was cc’d to Kathryn Matayoshi, the Superintendent and executive officer of the Department of Education as well, and that she made the decision to lower the churches rent. “The Board has nothing to do with decisions like that,” said Horner. As for the racial slur, Horner claimed no memory of the event, but apologized nonetheless, “If I did use it, I certainly won’t do so again,” he said.

Jo-Ann Adams, from the GLBT Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, attempted to frame the gay community’s concerns as one of representation. “Prior to 2010 we were fortunate enough to actually have had a trans-gendered person elected and then re-elected to the board. We had sincerely hoped that she would be appointed to the new board but she was not. What happened instead is that Mr. Horner was appointed, and we knew at the time that he did not support our cause. The intangible impact on our community was that we had taken a giant step backward.

“For the GLBT community it is very distressing to have a member of New Hope chair the board,” continued Adams. “They are one of two major churches that were very vocal in their opposition of same-sex marriage. We are sending an unwritten signal to the GLBT students, teachers and parents by supporting, as the head of the BOE, someone who is very actively involved in a church that so vigorously opposes our full participation in society.”

Senator Michelle Kidani shot down this argument by pointing out that individuals are not the same as organizations, and that she has family and staff members that are a part of New Hope, but that do not agree with the church’s anti-gay philosophy.

Of course, Horner isn’t just an individual member of New Hope, he’s a registered pastor and member of the Hawaii Pastor’s Roundtable, a collection of pastors from different churches who were also vocally opposed to same-sex marriage. But because Horner is not on staff with New Hope and he receives no compensation for his work there, this was also insignificant to the senators. “I am registered because I love to teach,” said Horner. “You’re all welcome to come to my Bible studies class tonight—6 o’clock.”

Attorney Hannah Miyamoto brought up a procedural issue that she believes constitutes a breach of due process concerning a February meeting the BOE held regarding Pono Choices. Pono Choices is the DOE sexual health curriculum option currently under siege by Representative Bob McDermott (R) and conservative Christians who believe homosexual scenarios outlined in the curriculum are inherently inappropriate for high school students.

“Here is the notice that was given for a discussion about Pono Choices: ‘Presentation / Discussion on Student Health and Safety.’ Following that, by some means, twenty-nine people showed up to testify,” said Miyamoto. “One person testified in favor [of Pono Choices], one person was neutral, the remainder were in strong opposition; one testifier even threatened violence against the board members [should they support the curriculum]. How does that happen? I think that happens when someone unofficially puts out the word to the churches that this is going to be discussed. They wanted a loaded, Stalin-like show trial of Pono Choices, instead of a fair one.”

Miyamoto also criticized New Hope’s “lobbying” efforts with the BOE and labeled them as suspect. “New Hope spent thousands of dollars illegally to try and lobby you [the Senators],” she said. “Everyone’s got a right to free speech, but you do not have the right to use tax deductible funds, collected under 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code to influence legislation. You know that, I know that, New Hope knows that. But because Mr. Horner has this position in New Hope, that creates a very direct conflict of interest. He cannot possibly be a fair broker, certainly not as chair.”

Shaun Campbell of MoveOn.org’s Honolulu council also tried to link Horner, through his New Hope position, to the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (the church that campaigned for anti-gay laws in Uganda, where gays can now be put to death) and Transformation Hawaii (the local branch of a national organization that seeks to supplant secular societal values and laws with conservative Christian ones). Horner denied any involvement with either organization when questioned by Sen. Slom who dismissed these claims as “attacks by association.”

But there was also criticism centered on Horner’s actual leadership ability and management style.

Maralyn Kurshals was elected to the BOE in 2010 and served on the Board when Horner was first appointed as chair, lending her a before-and-after perspective. “Under Mr. Horner’s leadership, the BOE is no longer accessible nor transparent. It does not promote engagement with educators, the community, parents or students. The process of free speech and open government has been eliminated.

“First, he deliberately scheduled business meetings during daytime hours, when the majority of parents and others are unable to attend,” she continued. “The meeting times also did not allow the student representative to participate without missing school, which is rather ironic and made it difficult to find a student to serve in that position. Mr. Horner then strategically removed the often lengthy part of the agenda called ‘community concerns,’ which allowed an open, uncontrolled conversation with community members. Mr. Horner developed a new, so-called ‘policy’ that all public testimony topics had to already be on the agenda, which completely restricts any opportunity for authentic discussion.”

Besides this, Kurshals also claimed that Horner moved the business meetings from schools to a downtown location in order to further restrict the dialog. The community meetings at schools did not require quorum, were optional for board members and no minutes were ever taken for them. Horner was also accused of calling the Sheriffs on a testifier who went past the newly implemented two-minute limit on testimony—something the senators did not address in their questions or comments.

Another testifier brought up the importance of parents’ ability to bring matters of, for example, abuse, directly to the Board without needing to add that concern to the agenda ahead of time. “That ability to communicate directly with the Board allows [parents] to bring up a complaint without fear of reprisal.”

“When you front-load the meetings with an executive session, you’re going to discourage public participation,” said Dan Purcell, who was not testifying either in favor or against, but simply confirming what other testifiers said, as he is a regular attendee of BOE meetings.

“Time-management, efficiency and control [have] dominated Mr. Horner’s term of office, while community engagement, integrity and authenticity [have] been lost,” re-iterated Kurshals.

Whatever concerns the senators might have had regarding these transparency issues were apparently mollified through Horner’s statement that would work to address them should he be re-confirmed. Which is exactly what happened. Horner’s appointment was unanimously confirmed (Sen. Rudderman was excused) by EDU and he now moves to advise-and-consent before a full Senate vote.

The very valid management and transparency concerns ended up being greatly over-shadowed by the more dramatic, and sometimes emotional, concerns raised by the LGBT community and its supporters. It’s likely EDU was already planning on confirming Horner, but—if Senator Tokuda’s and Slom’s statements can be taken as indicators—the civil rights and separation of church and state arguments probably did more harm than good for Horner’s critics in the LGBT community. A lesson in the political process, perhaps.