An educational think tank in Hawaii is turning to the public in an attempt to convince the state Department of Education to turn over financial data the nonprofit says is key to building a fiscal transparency tool for the public benefit.

Education Institute of Hawaii, a nonprofit led by a former DOE assistant superintendent and education advocates, has launched an online petition to collect 1,000 signatures in support of the DOE releasing more information about its spending and revenue.

The institute claims the DOE has provided only partial data.

“It’s public information, it’s public tax dollars, it’s reasonable and standard information,” said Ray L’Heureux, institute president and former assistant superintendent in charge of facilities. “It could be their own dysfunction as far as putting their own data together.”

Education Institute of Hawaii President Ray L’Heureux, right, says the nonprofit has received only about 70 percent of the records it has sought since last summer 2018 in its effort to build a school spending database.

Bianca Smallwood/Civil Beat

The DOE has claimed that it’s turned over all the information it legally can under state record laws.

The institute has been seeking the DOE data since last summer.

It’s working with Pennsylvania-based EduAnalytics to build a database that would allow citizens to analyze how each of the state’s 292 public schools spend their money.

“We’re not here to advocate how the DOE spends money, it’s to say, ‘This is how you’re spending it,’” L’Heureux said Monday.

The DOE has an annual operating budget of about $1.9 billion, not including unfunded liabilities for pensions. How it spends its money and how much of it goes to individual schools has been a perpetual driver of debate, particularly at the Legislature.

One byproduct of the Hawaii teachers union’s failed campaign for a constitutional amendment in 2018 to tax investment property to boost public school funding was a debate over whether the DOE was effectively spending the money it currently gets.

The institute contends that while the DOE posts much of its financial data online, the numbers are reported in such broad categories and gross sums that they’re essentially rendered meaningless and provides little impetus for lawmakers to fulfill additional funding asks.

It also says the DOE’s $1.9 billion operating budget doesn’t account for another $1 billion in unfunded liabilities for pensions and other post-employment benefits.

The institute says the fiscal database it wants to build would empower schools to make better spending decisions and give the public an idea how money is being spent at the school and classroom levels.

DOE Says It’s Complied ‘In Good Faith’

The petition effort kicked off several days ago and has received just several dozen of the 1,000 signatures it’s seeking.

But the DOE has responded with a message of its own: a letter sent to institute leaders by Superintendent Christina Kishimoto expressing disappointment in the effort.

In the May 7 letter, Kishimoto said the DOE has been working with the institute “in good faith” and provided “numerous data files with budget, revenue, expenditure, audit, weighted student formula and fiscal data to address your requests.”

Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto speaks at DOE board meeting.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto sent a letter to the institute saying she was “disappointed” in its decision to launch a public petition.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“HIDOE is committed to transparency and to providing information to our school communities and stakeholders in an easily understood format, but it cannot provide a third-party organization with confidential financial data based on the simple premise of getting a free product,” Kishimoto wrote.

She also contended the institute is seeking “confidential types of data, such as individual salaries, medical payments, and other personally identifiable information.”

Last July, the institute sent the DOE 12 requests under Hawaii’s public information law and has received about 70 percent of the requested files, L’Heureux said, including audit reports, student performance data, demographic enrollment data and the DOE’s finance system manual.

What it has not received is detailed revenue and expenditure data for all DOE operations and every public school for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, he said, as well as payroll system data that includes job titles and salary amounts for each DOE position for those years.

L’Heureux, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for governor last year, rebutted Kishimoto’s contention the institute is seeking confidential personnel data, only salaries related to position slots that are not traceable to specific employees.

Jay F. May, founder and CEO of EduAnalytics, said financial data turned over by DOE was comprised of “tens of thousands of detailed line items” when a school district of Hawaii’s size should have included “hundreds of thousands” of line items.

May said his firm has worked with 30 states and the District of Columbia to provide similar types of funding studies, including one from 2018 analyzing the productivity of public charter schools in eight U.S. cities.

“We’re doing the model for a tool that can help the department improve the trust in the community by capturing all of the dollars and providing a tool where anybody could use it to do some analysis,” he said Monday.

“We stand by Kishimoto’s letter explaining the department’s position,” DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said via email.

Feds Will Require The Same Information

In her letter, Kishimoto wrote that all the data the institute is requesting will be included in a “future financial management system” the DOE is building to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

The law requires every state to publish per-pupil expenditures at the individual school level, rather than district or state per-pupil averages.

The idea behind the requirement is to help the public better understand the relationship between school spending and student outcomes, according to a policy paper by Edunomics Lab, a Georgetown University research center. The DOE has begun building that system, according to a January memo from Kishimoto to the Board of Education.

The Education Institute of Hawaii’s argument is that despite this new federal requirement, its own planned database would “put Hawaii one year ahead of schedule for ESSA compliance.”

The nonprofit, which was founded in 2014 and receives funding from the Mamoru and Aiko Takitani Foundation, has already spent about $40,000 on the effort, according to L’Heureux.

“We’re not trying to prove anything, we’re trying to nudge the DOE to be more transparent because you’re not going to solve the why or what of, is DOE funded adequately or not, if the decision-makers don’t have trust that the money being presently spent is being spent effectively,” he said.

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