When Hawaii’s former state assistant superintendent and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Ray L’Heureux started a school advocacy organization, he and his board decided to take an unusual tack: Instead of asking state legislatures to spend more on schools, as most advocacy groups do, he filed a litany of open records requests to see how the state spent its $2 billion in tax dollars in each of the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.
But the state education department, L’Heureux said, told the Education Institute of Hawaii that it didn’t have the technological tools to give a line-by-line accounting for much of the $2 billion in K-12 spending, including teachers’ and administrators’ salaries.
That’s why the Education Institute of Hawaii earlier this month sued the state department for its inability to list for the public how it spends billions of tax dollars.
State departments of education across the country this year have been under intense pressure to open their fiscal books to the public, a technologically and politically complicated feat. But it’s highly unusual for a former state department official to push fiscal transparency issues into the courts.
Hawaii, a unitary, statewide school system that includes several charter schools, has for years been enmeshed in school funding battles. Politicians and teachers have complained about desperate conditions caused by years of budget cuts, including a rolling teacher shortage, delapidated schools, and lagging academic outcomes. An effort by the state’s teachers union last year to implement the state’s first-ever property tax failed after the state’s court called the language confusing.
Hawaii also is among several states with antiquated data systems that can’t track the thousands of transactions school districts make throughout the school year. Department officials are blaming those data systems for high-profile glitches that have occured this year as state legislatures seek to boost teacher pay and states look to comply with a new federal requirement to break out school spending amounts.
“To have any sense of empowerment, you have to have an idea of the fiscal health of the department,” said L’Heureux, who formerly served as the department’s assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services. He unsuccessfully ran for governor last year.
In response to an inquiry from Education Week, Hawaii’s state superintendent Christina Kishimoto said:
“We are fully committed to providing information in a transparent manner to our school communities and stakeholders, and we continue to make great strides toward increasing public access to our financial data in formats that are meaningful and user-friendly. It is 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, seeking their way instead of allowing the current leadership the time to replace its financial management system and complete a redesign of a school empowerment budgeting approach. Our focus is on innovation, equity and empowerment.”
Earlier this month, the department’s chief financial officer, Amy Kunz resigned to take a job with the University of Hawaii system. She was the second department assistant superintendent to resign this summer.
In an editorial published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser earlier this year, Kunz, who previously served on the PTA at her son’s school, said she came to work for the department to “fix the system.”
Kunz pointed out the state’s clean audits, and listed the many ways the state provides for public accountability over its school spending including school community councils, a “committee on weights” that oversees the state’s funding formula, and the state’s board of education, which approves the department’s budget.
“So what’s the problem?” she asked. “The problem is the data we provide is based on an accounting system that is more than two decades out of use, with program categories that can’t be easily updated or cycled out of the system because of downstream impacts to schools’ cash flow and budgeting that can last years. No amount of transparency about our numbers can fix the flaws in the underlying system. A $2 billion enterprise, with loads of complexities, requires an industry-standard Financial Management System.”
L’Heureux said he’s not attempting to be adversarial but instead wants to help the department build public trust.
“Until we figure out whether they’re being fiscally responsible ... and gain this trust back ... let’s not add anymore to their budget,” said L’Heureux. If it turns out that they do, indeed, need more money, “we’d be the first people in line behind them pushing to get more funding.”