Testimony from the Hawaii State Teachers Association submitted for that meeting is telling:
It was quite the surprise to find out that hiring the new superintendent would come with an additional price tag of $380,000 (which is in excess of $579,000 once fringe benefits are factored in) to add two additional deputy superintendents to the bureaucracy. That’s more than half a million dollars per year that will be funneled away from our classrooms and our keiki.
One of the advantages of a statewide school system is supposed to be that it creates efficiencies by requiring less bureaucracy. Spending millions of dollars on additional complex and state-level positions erodes that narrative, further damaging public trust (what little of it that exists) that the Hawaii State Department of Education spends public funds wisely. Legislators have privately expressed their dismay at this turn of events, especially in light of their generosity in the most recent legislative session only to see those monies not making it to the classrooms for which they were intended.
The Department of Education (DOE) is a huge part of our state government. According to the FY2023 Executive Supplemental Budget (page 9), it accounts for over $2.5 billion, a full 15% of the $16.9 billion dollars that state government is budgeted for in fiscal year 2023.
Yet there is very little transparency into the way DOE spends its money. The Education Institute of Hawaii, a local nonprofit and education related think tank, some years ago tried to get DOE to release financial data through our state’s public records laws. They submitted a request for data for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. They wound up in a bitter court fight, with state attorneys throwing up procedural roadblocks that a Circuit Court judge had to take down bit by bit. Finally, the data was released – in October 2020. A 206-page court motion released by the nonprofit describes in detail the back-and-forth between the nonprofit and the DOE that led up to the lawsuit. According to court records, that motion was granted by the court on March 25, 2021. Further legal wrangling, leading to the court making the DOE pay the nonprofit most of its attorneys’ fees and costs, continued into mid-2021. The good news is that data was released; the bad news was that it was far from current, making its usefulness limited. “A four-and-a-half year wait, including a court action, to obtain personally unidentifiable public financial data does not demonstrate transparency,” one of the nonprofit’s consultants said in a statement. It also doesn’t help when two years’ worth of state attorneys’ resources are expended in legal fighting against transparency.
That lack of transparency has not been limited to fiscal matters. The State Auditor’s Office tried to get DOE to give it information about its COVID-19 policies and procedures, and then, in its Report No. 20-11 (2020), loudly complained about DOE’s lack of cooperation.
The DOE has for years been criticized as top-heavy, spending untold millions of dollars within its top bureaucratic echelons before filtering the moneys down to the teachers and the classrooms. Committing another half million dollars to the bureaucracy by way of fait accompli just perpetuates the public distrust about the inner workings of the DOE.
We need to do better, DOE. After pulling together fiscal records for 2016-17, presumably you folks know the drill by now and can come up with necessary records for later years. You are a public agency funded by taxpayer money. Lawmakers and the public need to have confidence that the money is spent wisely.