Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Thursday, July 18, 2024 76° Today's Paper


Budget battle: Nonprofit seeks financial data on Hawaii public schools

1/1
Swipe or click to see more

STAR-ADVERTISER

Ray L’Heureux:

He is president and chairman of the Education Institute of Hawaii

The Education Institute of Hawaii wants to take a deep dive into the finances of the state’s public schools and let everyone know precisely where the money is going, campus by campus.

But so far it has come up short in its efforts to get all the budget data it needs from the Department of Education, according to Ray L’Heureux, president and board chairman of the nonprofit institute.

“We want to help the Department of Education help themselves,” L’Heureux said. “You know there’s distrust with the Legislature. We need transparency. … It has to start with, where’s the money?”

The DOE says that it has turned over numerous data files in response to requests from the institute, but there are legal limits to what can be released. So far, it says, it has shared electronic budget data, general ledger details of actual revenues and expenditures, financial audits and weighted student formula funding, among other records.

But EIH contends that the information is incomplete. In a recent message to the department, it complained that the revenue and expenditure data lacked sufficient detail — and that as much as $1 billion in spending was missing. While the 2017 financial audit shows total expenditures of $2.8 billion, the department provided EIH with expenditures totaling $1.8 billion, L’Heureux said.

“Plus, the revenue file contained just 1,287 rows of data, and the expenditure file contained just 4,276 rows of data versus the expected 30,000 to 100,000 rows of data if the data were specified at the level of detail we requested,” he said.

Lindsay Chambers, communications director for the Department of Education, said the $1 billion discrepancy covers spending by state agencies that are not part of the department’s Financial Management System.

That spending includes fringe benefits paid centrally by the state, such as pensions, health insurance for employees and retirees. It also includes the budget of the statewide public library system as well as the charter school system, which are separate from DOE.

“HIDOE provided the Education Institute of Hawaii records that are readily retrievable from the department’s Financial Management System,” Chambers said.

She said her department has complied with multiple requests from EIH under the state’s public-records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act, but some information remains confidential.

“It seems like they are asking for unrestricted access to everything in our system, which goes beyond what the open-records law permits,” Chambers said. “We believe we have provided everything that was readily retrievable and falls within the limits of the law.”

For instance, the institute is requesting actual salaries for every position in the Department of Education. But under the open-records law, the state may publicly release only salary ranges for individual employees.

“Even if names are not attached to positions, an individual’s salary could be inadvertently revealed if that person is the only one in that position in an office,” Chambers said. “The test is whether a member of the public could figure it out.”

The financial data EIH is seeking also includes other private information, such as medical payments for individuals in an office, she said.

The institute wants to capture every bit of financial data pertaining to public schools, including fringe benefits and pension payments. Its goal is to synthesize the massive amounts of information into an easy-to-read online tool that reveals how education dollars are spent down to the school level.

“It allows everybody to see what’s going on with the dollars,” said Joan Lewis, a Kapolei High School teacher who serves on the EIH board. “It makes it clear and helps answer questions like, Is there enough funding, is there too much or could it be used more efficiently and more effectively?”’

The institute was founded in 2014 by former and current educators to improve public education by “empowering teachers, principals and parents.” L’Heureux had a brief stint as an assistant superintendent of facilities from 2012 to 2014. The nonprofit receives much of its funding from the Mamoru and Aiko Takitani Foundation.

It has hired EduAnalytics LLC, based in New Freedom, Pa., to perform the financial analysis and create the tool. The company is putting together the database, which would allow a user to plug in a school name and drill down to find out how much is spent at the campus and with what results. It also would include context, such as demographics of the community.

The Department of Education already makes a wealth of information available about its schools, students and their performance at its website, hawaiipublicschools.org. Individual school reports and trends are available at arch.k12.hi.us.

In January it launched a handy tool, the online ESSA Dashboard, which allows users to choose a school name from a drop-down menu and pull up information for that campus, similar to the system proposed by the Education Institute. ESSA stands for Every Student Succeeds Act.

The dashboard includes per-pupil spending, teacher qualifications, student academic proficiency, absenteeism, graduation rates and more. Per-pupil spending varies across campuses and tends to be lower at larger schools, where overhead is spread across a big student population.

“The department understands the importance of being transparent to our school communities and the taxpayers that invest in our public school system,” Chambers said. “We are always looking at ways of presenting our data in a user-friendly format and making it easily accessible. Our website is a comprehensive resource of information — from the department’s budget to student performance.”

Per-pupil expenditures at the school level averaged $8,203 in the 2017-18 school year, not including services provided centrally such as meals, transportation, facilities maintenance, utilities and special education. When those are added in, the figure rises to $11,310 per student.

Aggregate statewide per-pupil expenditures were $14,943, including spending by other agencies on “fringe benefits,” such as pensions, health insurance for current and retired workers, Social Security, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance.

The most recent Census Bureau report on public education finances showed Hawaii spending $13,748 per pupil in 2016, putting it in 15th place among the states in the 2016 fiscal year, compared with a national average of $11,762. Those figures include salaries, wages, benefits, support services, administration and pupil support.

HAWAII’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Per-pupil expenditures, 2017-18 school year

>> $8,203 at the school level

>> $11,310 including centrally provided services such as meals, transportation, facilities, utilities and special education

>> $14,943 including spending by other agencies including pensions, health insurance for current and retired workers, and other fringe benefits

>> Learn more with the per-pupil expenditures fact sheet online at 808ne.ws/ppefacts.

Source: State Department of Education

ONLINE

>> To check out your school, try the ESSA Dashboard at bit.ly/HIDOEessadash. Data includes per-pupil spending, teacher qualifications, student proficiency, absenteeism, graduation rates and more.

>> In-depth individual reports on every Hawaii public school and trend information are also available online at arch.k12.hi.us.

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines. Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.