Churches are massively shortchanging Hawaii’s public schools on rent and other costs for weekend-use of school facilities, according to a whistleblower lawsuit that was unsealed by the Circuit Court late Wednesday.

The lawsuit, which was filed under seal by attorney James Bickerton in March, alleges that five churches have over the last six years deprived the schools of more than $5.6 million in rent and other charges. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs — two private citizens who are pursuing the case on behalf of the state — the churches could owe the schools three times that amount, $16.8 million.

The lawsuit contends that the churches — New Hope Oahu, New Hope Hawaii Kai, New Hope Kapolei, Calvary Chapel Central Oahu and One Love Ministries — filed false forms in which they understated how much time they used the facilities in order to save money, at the schools’ expense.

In their applications to the Hawaii Department of Education for use of the facilities, the churches repeatedly indicated that they planned on occupying the grounds for just a few hours. They ended up using them for whole days or even entire weekends, according to the lawsuit.

“They’re directly taking money from our state’s children,” Bickerton said. “And that doesn’t happen by accident.”

Board of Education chair Don Horner is a registered pastor with ties to New Hope.

New Hope spokesman Fernando Castillo denied the allegations, saying in a statement that the churches have always honored all school facilities usage agreements with the DOE. He noted that the churches have also voluntarily donated thousands of dollars to the schools, to help upgrade facilities and equipment.

“We are committed to be (sic) a blessing to our community,” he said.

Representatives for the other churches involved in the case declined to comment Thursday.

Board of Education policy allows the DOE to rent school facilities out to community organizations at low rates that are just enough to cover the costs of running the buildings — janitor services and air conditioning, for example — for the time they’re being used.

The state, Bickerton emphasized, doesn’t make any money from the rent and, overall, it actually loses money by renting out such facilities.

Until recently, the DOE charged organizations about $63 per hour to rent out a school cafeteria and another $9 each hour for utilities.

The lawsuit was sealed for nearly five months while it was being reviewed by Hawaii Attorney General David Louie.

Plaintiffs Mitch Kahle and Holly Huber, who wrote a 2,200-page report detailing evidence of their allegations, filed the suit on behalf of the state. They said most of the damages would go into public schools’ coffers.

Kahle and Huber told journalists on Thursday that they had been investigating the churches for more than a year, visiting the schools on weekends and collecting evidence that the churches were using facilities much more than they paid for. Some of the most damning evidence, they said, are event posts and photos on social media that clearly demonstrate the churches were using the school facilities for extended periods of time.

Known for their staunch advocacy for a clear separation between church and state, Kahle and Huber said their investigation began as a look into that issue, but that it changed when they discovered that the case was really about cash and real estate.

The most egregious church, the lawsuit claims, is New Hope ministries, which allegedly accounted for $4.6 million in underpayments. Much of the purported fraud involves New Hope Oahu, which the lawsuit says underpaid Farrington High School more than $3.2 million.

Bickerton pointed to the November 2012 collapse of Farrington’s auditorium roof — an incident that forced New Hope Oahu to host its services in facilities elsewhere.

“That $3.2 million might well have put a roof on Farrington years ago,” Bickerton said.

Other schools whose facilities have been taken advantage of, the lawsuit alleges, include Kaiser High School and Kapolei Middle School.

Kahle and Huber said on Thursday that at least 35 other churches have underpaid to schools, but the lawsuit only targets the five largest users of such facilities.

Bickerton and the plaintiffs criticized the churches for withholding money that should go to Hawaii’s students. The DOE, they noted, is already strapped for funding to cover basic amenities to facilitate student learning.

Church officials are saving their ministries money “to the detriment of public schools and public school children,” Bickerton said.

Bickerton also said Horner’s involvement with New Hope Diamond Head raises a serious question of conflict of interest.

The executive pastor at New Hope Oahu wrote to Horner in October requesting that he lower rental fee rates and eliminate a long-standing provision that barred the churches from leasing facilities for more than five years, according to the memo which was forwarded to Civil Beat. (The provision aimed to prevent churches from using school facilities on a permanent basis.)

Less than three weeks later, DOE Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi announced that she had deleted the five-year rule from application forms.

“I’m sure a lot of parents wish they had their complaints addressed this quickly by the Board of Education,” Bickerton said.

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