A Hawaii education advocacy group managed to wrangle detailed budgetary information from the state Department of Education — but it took two-and-a-half years and a lawsuit to get records the group’s attorneys say are now outdated.
The Education Institute of Hawaii formally requested the detailed finance data from the DOE in March 2018 under the state public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act, with the idea of building a financial transparency tool to help the public understand how the DOE spends its money.
When the department refused to hand over much of the information — including general ledger line items, DOE audit reports and salaries and pension data — EIH sued DOE and state superintendent, Christina Kishimoto, in July 2019.
The suit, filed in First Circuit Court, sought revenue, expenditure and encumbrances for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 to the “lowest level of detail available,” including specific allocations to every public school in the state.
The DOE turned over the records in two batches: in August and October of this year, according to EIH, far beyond the time limits granted to state agencies for fulfilling public records requests.
“The delay here is exceptionally egregious,” an EIH Dec. 11 court filing says, adding the data “is now stale by several years” and that the education think tank must now submit new requests for fiscal years 2018 through 2020 to get up-to-date information.
Cades Schutte, the law firm representing EIH pro bono, says invoices show DOE staff only spent about 36 hours to collect, gather and review the data. It is asking a judge to find DOE liable under the public records law for failing to produce records in a timely manner.
“It would send a message to the government that hopefully would deter not just the DOE but other agencies from stonewalling or refusing to provide complete responses,” said attorney John Duchemin. “It can’t possibly be OK for a government agency to delay for multiple years in providing data that, whether or not is time-sensitive, the public is entitled to see.”
Jay May, a certified public accountant and CEO of EduAnalytics, a Pennsylvania firm hired by EIH to help parse the data, said building an analytical tool based on three-year-old data would now “have limited use.”
“Things kind of timed out,” he said, due to the delay in the records production.
May said he’s worked with other school districts to obtain finance data and met with some resistance but never had to go through litigation to get it.
“I can’t help but think they’re shooting themselves in the foot every day they try to keep from the public information that is just available in every other state,” he said.
DOE spokesman Derek Inoshita said the DOE could not comment because of the pending litigation.
The data release comes as the state is facing serious budget cuts due to the pandemic’s impacts on tourism and local business.
The DOE, which is mostly funded through the state general fund, had announced teacher furlough days beginning in early January.
But Gov. David Ige said Monday state worker furloughs will be delayed in response to the federal relief bill signed by President Trump over the weekend. That package is expected to steer $178 million to Hawaii’s schools, according to information released at a briefing Monday by the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
Kishimoto said the DOE is operating at a $264 million deficit over the next two fiscal years because of mandatory budget cuts ordered as a result of the pandemic.
In a statement, EIH chairman and president Ray L’Heureux, a former DOE assistant superintendent in charge of facilities and a 2018 GOP Hawaii gubernatorial candidate, said knowing how the DOE spends its money could help inform budgetary decisions in times of crisis.
“It would seem to me that all other courses of action should be explored before one teacher is furloughed or loses a day of pay,” he said. “We hope the analysis of the data will bear this out.”
EduAnalytics did some initial clean-up of the raw 2016 and 2017 fiscal data. The largest DOE expenditure in 2017, according to one spreadsheet, was $88.4 million for a line item whose only description is that it comes from capital improvement funds and is labeled “Lump Sum CIP- Condition, S/W-Con.”
The second largest expenditure that year was $60.3 million for “Student Transportation” — bus contracts under the DOE Office of School Facilities and Support Services.
May, the EduAnalytics CPA, was struck by the amount of money in “encumbrances,” set aside for a particular item in the future.
“If you’re looking for money in a budget, you can begin there,” he said.
Joan Husted, EIH’s vice president, said the think tank is still digesting the data but plans to work with the Legislature when it convenes in January to see how this financial information can be useful.
She said EIH will seek more current financial data from the DOE in mid-January to help guide principals’ decision-making.
“The assumption is that every principal knows where every dollar is, and that simply is not true,” Husted said. This information “can help with their decision-making and help them when they ask for money.”