If you scroll to around the 4-hour, 35-minute mark in the archived video of the Board of Education’s meeting of May 19, you will see Kaleo Nakoa begin his testimony on the search for a new school superintendent.
Nakoa, addressing Keith Hayashi — one of the candidates for the job — told the interim superintendent that he had failed the children of Hawaii as a leader. He faulted Hayashi for issuing an order to require the wearing of masks inside schools to protect against Covid-19.
He called the lawfulness of the order and BOE bylaws into question and then said this: “We have given you all peer-reviewed and science-backed studies that show masks do not work and are causing more harm, but you would rather get your information from CNN and Sarah ‘Puppet’ Kemble and Josh ‘Paid Off’ Green” — referring respectively to the state epidemiologist and lieutenant governor.
At that point the buzzer signaling that Nakoa’s one minute in testimony was up went off as some in the BOE board room erupted in cheers — not for the buzzer but for what Nakoa had just said. Though his time had apparently expired, Nakoa cradled the now-silenced microphone in his hand, indicating he still had something to say.
Told by BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne that he might forcibly be removed unless he relinquished the mic, Nakoa stood his ground. He was soon joined by others at the podium as Payne called for security.
“This is about our children! Our children! Not yours!” yelled a woman in the audience. “Each of you remember who’s paying your salary!”
Another woman shouted the Hawaiian word for “wrong” and wagged a finger at the board, saying, “All of you guys are hewa! Hewa!”
After some 15 minutes of chaos, Payne ordered the meeting into recess, although many audience members did not leave even as a BOE staffer pulled together the sliding doors that divide the board members’ chairs and tables from the audience.
No one was arrested and the board ultimately selected Hayashi to take the job permanently. But it was an ugly episode that seemed out of step with Hawaii’s vaunted love of aloha and tolerance. In fact, there were other disruptions that same meeting, which lasted some 12 hours.
What exactly happened?
‘Kids Can’t Breathe’
From the point of view of Nakoa, all he was trying to do was deliver the testimony of his wife, Maggie, who was stuck in traffic and could not make the meeting in person. Being in her car, he told me, she did not want to use the Webex platform.
The parents of four children, three of them still in public schools, Nakoa said he believed it was important to ask the board about the Covid policy, something that was largely implemented under Hayashi through consultation with the state Department of Health.
The reason Nakoa — who happens to be a candidate for the Honolulu City Council this year — stayed at the mic is because he also wanted to provide his own testimony.
“I do not even know who Sarah Kemble is,” said Nakoa, who also said his wife texted him her testimony, which he read from his smart phone. “But I want people to know that we are not disgruntled but just concerned parents. We were not speaking for the masses but for the people with the right to say that their kids can’t breathe or function with a mask on.”
In Nakoa’s view, the BOE had already made up its mind on who they would select as superintendent. They weren’t interested in hearing what the public had to say.
From the point of view of BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne, however, the purpose of the May 19 meeting was to take testimony on the candidates. Payne said the BOE had received calls and letters about the mask policy before, and that is why she scheduled a public meeting earlier that month to hear from people — including many of the same people who showed up May 19.
But Payne also decided to have extra security on hand for the second meeting, including some in plain clothes. Some audience members used profanity and were clearly agitated, and to Payne it seemed some people recording the meeting may have had the intent to post the footage later online.
“Their intention was to keep us from doing our business, and even the (state) sheriff at one point raised concerns on if we needed to cancel or postpone the meeting,” she said. “But I was determined to get through the meeting even if it took until midnight.”
She succeeded around 8:45 p.m., not midnight. But Payne said some of the things that were said by some audience members bordered on terroristic threatening — “that they would come to our house, they knew where we lived — that sort of thing.”
For Gary Cordery, who formerly led the Aloha Freedom Coalition that has rallied against mask mandates and who is now running for governor as a Republican on a freedom platform, the incident demonstrated that the BOE does not really care about the people they serve.
Cordery in the video is seen trying to calm the crowd, something that both Payne and Nakoa acknowledge. He said he believed Nakoa’s testimony for his wife was cut short and that Nakoa himself was not allowed to testify, even though both were signed up to do so.
“The timer went off before the minute was up, and people were upset about that,” he said, arguing that the BOE should allow at least 2 minutes or more for testimony. “Most people can barely get their thoughts together in 15 seconds to say something of substance. I think the issue speaks to the moms and dads that the BOE doesn’t really want to hear their opinions — that is my takeaway.”
— Cassie Ordonio (@CassieOrdonio) May 20, 2022
Payne said she understood why some people are upset with Covid policy after more than two years of living through the pandemic. But instead of having a policy discussion to address such concerns, BOE meetings are beginning to resemble those in mainland states where things have sometimes really gotten out of hand.
Neither she nor the board staff had ever seen anything like what happened before at a school board meeting in Hawaii.
“This is so concerning to me,” said Payne, who said she will step away from public life next month when her term ends. “I think that we are not going to make progress as a community the way we need to if we can’t have conversations that are respectful and model Hawaiian values like hooponopono,” referring to the traditional practice of reconciliation and forgiveness.
She concluded, “If we can’t do that, I think we are going to lose what is very precious to us, and be like the mainland.”
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