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Details of Hawaii Department of Education finances released after long tug of war

After four years of effort and a lawsuit, the Education Institute of Hawaii has finally obtained the comprehensive electronic financial data it sought from the Department of Education.

Ray L’Heureux, the nonprofit’s president, said he hopes the records — although dating from the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years — will provide insights on how money is distributed that could be helpful as public schools deal with budget cuts. And he believes the data release may smooth the way for future requests.

“Fiscal transparency becomes absolutely critical if we are to navigate the fiscal crisis the pandemic has brought on,” he said. “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. We hope the analysis of the data will bear this out.”

The institute had requested electronic data downloaded from the Department of Education’s finance systems, including revenues and expenditures for every public school. It had hired EduAnalytics, LLC, a Pennsylvania-based firm, to examine how the department’s $2.1 billion operating budget is spent.

Attorney Jeffrey Portnoy of Cades Schutte LLP, who represented the institute in a First Circuit Court lawsuit against Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and the Department of Education, described the delay in producing the records as “exceptionally egregious.”

“These records or very similar records were produced voluntarily in more than 30 other jurisdictions without the necessity for litigation, unwarranted delay and multiple unsupportable legal and factual arguments,” he said in an interview.

“It’s been ‘hide the ball’ from the very first time EIH requested this information,” Portnoy said. “It’s just another example of public agencies in the state of Hawaii not recognizing the public’s right to know.”

Spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the Department of Education could offer no comment since the litigation is still pending.

In a motion for partial summary judgment filed Dec. 11, the institute asks the court to find as a matter of law that DOE violated the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act and as a result EIH is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. A hearing in the case is set for June 15.

“We represented them (EIH) pro bono, they’re not responsible for any fee, but the statute provides that a prevailing party in a public records lawsuit against the state is entitled to fees and that’s what we are seeking,” Portnoy said.

The effort to examine public education finances dates back to 2016, when EIH asked to work with the department on a fiscal transparency project under the previous superintendent, Kathryn Matayoshi. That did not come to fruition.

“We tried very hard to get the state to work with us,” said Joan Husted, vice president of the Education Institute. “It was not anti-superintendent. It was not anti-DOE.”

Matayoshi was replaced by Kishimoto in August 2017. In March 2018, the institute filed 12 separate requests for financial data under the open records law. The department turned over partial records in June 2018 but the two sides continued to tussle over details of records and privacy concerns.

In July 2019, EIH filed suit to obtain the records. The department turned over the complete accounting this past October at the suggestion of the court, according to the institute’s motion.

“Waiting 30 months to complete a Uniform Information Practices Act request, under any circumstances, is a violation of the Office of Information Practices rules,” the institute’s motion says. “The delay here is exceptionally egregious.”

As for what was in those records, the Star-Advertiser asked L’Heureux if he could highlight any expenditures that were problematic in the data released in October, but he did not offer any examples.

“The Education Institute of Hawaii is not in the business of telling the DOE how to spend its money,” he said. “We are merely there to provide decision-making tools to better be able to quantify and articulate to the Legislature and the board how they are spending the money.”

He acknowledged that the voluminous data and spreadsheets are likely to throw most readers for a loop.

“That was one of the caveats that we always knew,” he said. “Once this data was released, it’s going to be a huge amount of data, it’s going to be very, very hard to pick through, very, very hard to understand. We are going through that now.”

“I do believe there is budget bandwidth to be gleaned, but we’ve got to pore through this data.

“The fact that the DOE did open the (records) — it doesn’t matter how, forget about the four and a half years — I think now we can embark on really developing this decision-making tool,” he said. “And we can work on getting confidence back from all those groups that are so disillusioned right now because of not having any trust in how the DOE is handling its budget.”

The financial data is available online for downloading at bit.ly/hidoe-data. It includes the original Excel spreadsheets from the department as well as annotated ones provided by EduAnalytics.

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