A local nonprofit led by a former Hawaii Department of Education assistant superintendent is suing to obtain financial records from the DOE in an attempt to build an online tool showing how education dollars are spent in the state.

The Education Institute of Hawaii, a think tank whose chairman and president is Ray L’Heureux, former assistant superintendent in charge of facilities, filed a complaint in First Circuit Court against school superintendent Christina Kishimoto and other unidentified DOE staff members over the alleged withholding of financial records.

EIH has been trying to obtain 12 categories of public records since March 2018 under Hawaii’s open records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act. The requests are for DOE’s general ledger line items; DOE audit reports and budget documents; job position data and actual salaries; pension data; and other items.

Queen Liliuokalani Building. Board of Education offices. 16 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Department of Education contends it has provided substantial responses to the requests for financial information. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Its complaint filed July 11 contends DOE has refused to hand over most of the records and failed to respond in a timely manner to its requests.

“Instead, the DOE provided its partial production of the requested records in dribs and drabs over the course of more than one year,” the complaint states.

In a written statement, DOE communications director Lindsay Chambers said the department has “provided all of the information and documents in our possession that is responsive to their request” and that the DOE continues to “make great strides toward increasing public access to our financial data in formats that are meaningful and user-friendly.”

The lawsuit follows a contentious back-and-forth between Kishimoto’s administration and EIH, whose board of directors consists of retired school administrators and other education advocates.

“We shouldn’t have had to take it to this stage,” the nonprofit’s executive director, Stephen Terstegge, said Wednesday. He said the group is sympathetic to the DOE’s reliance on an outdated financial management system, but that it has offered the DOE multiple chances to connect with its own hired experts to extract such data.

“By getting the data, we believe we can help them,” Terstegge said.

EIH wants the data to prepare a “detailed study of the Hawaii public education system” to give taxpayers a better idea of how financial decisions are made by the state’s second-largest agency, whose annual operating budget is $1.9 billion.

It alleges the records it’s seeking have “routinely been obtained” from education departments in other states to complete similar studies.

The nonprofit claims the DOE’s delay in turning over records has resulted in “substantial additional expenses, including legal fees and costs to retain counsel” and that Kishimoto has “acted in bad faith to chill EIH’s public inquiry” by sending a May 7 letter to Terstegge expressing consternation about the group’s efforts to garner petition signatures supporting its position.

Kishimoto echoed that sentiment in recent comments to the K-12 focused publication Education Week, saying it was “disappointing that a group of former employees, who have personal knowledge of the challenges of our antiquated systems, has chosen to challenge the Department in the midst of our modernization process.”

According to a detailed itemization of the requests’ status, DOE has provided fewer than 2,500 lines of the requested  100,000 lines of general ledger line items. The DOE also rejected several other requests on the basis it “does not maintain” such records, according to the complaint.

EIH is represented by Jeff Portnoy and John Duchemin, partners at Cades Schutte, which has an established First Amendment, advertising and media practices group.

Read the complaint here:

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