In June 2017, Carol Young was reviewing financial reports for an elementary school in her then-role as project director overseeing a federal grant that supports after-school enrichment programs for at-risk and disadvantaged children.

She stumbled on an abnormality — namely, that a former office assistant who had since moved on to a new school outside the grant’s purview was still receiving paychecks drawn from the federal funds.

Young said she raised the issue to her supervisors, but they didn’t do anything. She escalated her concerns to the complex area superintendent in charge of the Campbell-Kapolei school region.

“I brought it to their attention probably two or three times after that as a follow-up to say, has this been addressed? Is an audit necessary? I raised that question,” Young said in an interview with Civil Beat.

Carol Young portrait made in Mililani.

Veteran DOE employee Carol Young is pursuing legal action against the Hawaii DOE for alleged retaliatory action for shedding light on misuse of a federal grant.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Meanwhile, the payments to the office assistant continued, through November of that year. While the exact amount of double payments is unknown, it ultimately caused roughly $9,000 of federal grant disbursements to be withheld from the Campbell-Kapolei areas in the next allocation period, according to a March 2018 Hawaii Department of Education memo between academic officers.

For Young, who began her DOE career as a classroom reading teacher in the mid-1980s, drawing attention to the issue marked the start of a tumultuous period that has culminated in the filing of a lawsuit in Oahu’s First Circuit Court late last month against the DOE and specific education officers.

In December 2018, Young took her case to the feds, filing a whistleblower reprisal complaint with the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Education.

Last week, the IG delivered its findings. While Young was able to show her disclosures were “a contributing factor” in most of the DOE’s subsequent actions toward her, the DOE presented “clear and convincing evidence” it took those actions for independent reasons, according to a copy of the report provided to Civil Beat by Young’s attorney.

Her attorney, Andrew Stewart, said the initial report was preliminary and their side would be allowed to offer further evidence late this month.  He said it does not diminish any likelihood his client would prevail in her state claims.

In the lawsuit, Young alleges she was subject to a prolonged period of retaliatory action for blowing the whistle and notifying higher administrators about the error when nothing was done about it.

In the lawsuit, she contends she was frozen out of budget documents, subject to stringent requirements around fulfilling purchase orders for the federal grant, left to contend with unanswered or ignored emails about basic questions. The suit asserts she was placed on a professional development plan for “less than effective” employees despite a track record of receiving “highly effective” ratings and ultimately downgraded from a 12-month to 10-month project director position.

These roadblocks, Young said, ultimately prevented her from doing her job effectively: planning academic enrichment programs for school kids with the 21st Century Community Learning Center’s grant she was in charge of overseeing.

Some programs were delayed, others were canceled, she said.

“It caused a sense of disequilibrium because the schools weren’t sure who was in charge of the program, whether purchase orders would be processed on time, or if they’d be able to have their enrichment classes,” Young said.

“I think that’s what bothered me the most, that we were taking away from the students.”

In an email, a DOE spokeswoman said the department had not been served with the lawsuit and could not comment on ongoing or potential legal matters.

Alleged Retaliation

The Campbell-Kapolei complex area was awarded a five-year, $2 million 21st Century Community Learning Center grant in the 2015-16 school year.

The federal grant supports academic or cultural enrichment opportunities for kids during non-school hours in high-risk areas. Most of the funding, about 80%, supports personnel salaries. About 20% is used for supplies to support activities.

Starting in April 2016, Young became lead on two of these 21st Century learning grants for 11 total schools in the Campbell-Kapolei complex area. She was based at Makakilo Elementary School.

As project director, she coordinated several major events with this funding, including parent engagement nights and STEM nights that often drew several hundred to a thousand participants.

The funding was important for schools because it was “our chance to be creative,” according to Young.

“I always used to tell the schools that if people complain about not having enough time, not having enough money, not having enough programs, well that 21st Century programming is there,” she said.

But in order to do her job, Young also needed to be able to have open channels of communication with those she worked with and the freedom to do things like submit purchase orders in a timely fashion so such programming could come to fruition, she says.

All that stopped when she spoke out about the erroneous paychecks, which were being cut for an office worker who once worked at Makakilo but had moved on to Iroquois Point Elementary School, a school that wasn’t eligible for 21st Century federal funding.

The root cause of the faulty payments dealt with the office worker’s transition from a half-time status at Makakilo to a full-time position at Iroquois Point. Despite that transfer, she was still drawing her half-time position checks from the grant on top of her regular salary.

It’s not clear how much total the assistant received in overpayments and it also remains unclear whether the assistant ever repaid those funds.

“We believe this situation is unfortunate, but not intentional,” the 2018 DOE memo states. “All systemic possibilities to resolve this issue were explored, but ultimately not possible,” thus leading to the forfeiting of subsequent grant distributions during the next period.

The Campbell-Kapolei complex area was awarded a five-year, $2 million 21st Century Community Learning Center grant in the 2015-16 school year.

That amounted to $4,460 for the Campbell and Kapolei areas each.

After she raised the issue with them, Young alleges retaliation by her direct supervisor and other DOE officials.

For instance, her purchase orders would take from one month to about five months to be fulfilled by DOE supervisors (when it normally took less than a month) and she was stripped of her day to day fiscal responsibilities that prevented vendors from getting paid on time, she said.

In August 2018, Young’s attorney, Stewart of Showa Law Office, sent a notice to DOE school superintendent Christina Kishimoto and others notifying them of the alleged retaliatory behavior and possible legal violation that authorized Young to file suit against the DOE.

Young alleges that after this letter was sent, she was switched from being a 12-month to a 10-month employee.

Young said she experienced adverse health effects from the stress during this period and has included a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress in her lawsuit.

She has since moved to a new position at August Ahrens Elementary, where she works as an English language support teacher.

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