Property worth tens of thousands missing from local schools

Property worth tens of thousands missing from local schools »Play Video
A worker checks inventory at Salem-Keizer School District's central warehouse. The warehouse stores rows and rows of school supplies and also has a "cage" for high-value items that can only be accessed by a select number of employees.

SALEM, Ore. -- Inside Salem-Keizer School District's central warehouse, you'll find a high-security, barbed-wire-rimmed, badge-only-access cage. That's where the high-priced technology items are stored before they head to Salem-Keizer classrooms.

"This is our high-value cage," said David Hughes, manager of Auxiliary Services at Salem-Keizer School District.

Hughes oversees warehouse operations. He says there's only a handful of people who have access to the facility and fewer still who have access to "the cage", as it’s fondly called by Hughes and his staff.

There's limited access on purpose.

The district installed the cage sometime after 2011 when the district discovered someone stole 19 Lenovo computers from the warehouse, which were valued at $11,380.

The theft happened before Hughes' time but it's the reason he and his team track inventory at the warehouse - a massive 26,000 square foot facility - like a well-oiled machine. Nearly every item is logged into the district's computer system, bar coded, scanned and tracked before it’s transferred to Salem-Keizer classrooms. Hughes said his team is also responsible for spot checks throughout the year and annual inventory to determine accuracy.

"I think it's very effective," Hughes said.

While cases of theft from the warehouse are rare, theft in the district is not.

“It’s great to have a controlled atmosphere for items when they come into the district and to make sure they get to the schools where they belong, but once they get to the schools where they belong, they're out in the public atmosphere and it becomes more challenging to prevent theft," said Jay Remy, spokesman for Salem-Keizer.

The On Your Side Investigators obtained Salem-Keizer's property loss report (Excel) for the last three years and found $56,546 worth of items were stolen or missing.

Technology tops the list. For instance, someone stole $1,825 worth of computers from West Salem High School in 2012. A $185 flat panel monitor vanished from an instructional services building in 2011. A laptop and projector were stolen from McKay High School last year. It was valued at $1,459. The list also includes those 19 computers.

Perhaps, the strangest item on the loss report is a John Deere riding lawn mower.

The day after Christmas in 2011, thieves cut the lock off of the shed at Swegle Elementary in Salem and took off with the equipment,” Remy said.

The lawn mower was valued at $2,500*. The keys were not with the lawn mower so it's unclear if it was hotwired or hauled away.

In a 2012 case, a crook broke into Salem-Keizer's bus barn and stole $17,073 worth of wheels and tires.

"We're operating public facilities and so you've got hundreds of students - or thousands of students - at a high school," Remy said. "And then on the evenings and weekends you have wide open to the public for a lot of different events."

All told, Salem-Keizer district tracks 22,000 items - ranging in price from as low as $40 to several thousand dollars - that total $15 million, not including buildings.

In Oregon, each district is required to track capital assets worth $5,000 or more to the Oregon Department of Education for financial audits. Beyond that, it's generally up to the district to decide how to inventory its assets.

"The tracking and reporting of assets at the district level, both capital and non-capital, really depends on a few things, such as the source of funding used to purchase the asset, the type of asset, grant requirements, and the anticipated life span of the asset," said Crystal Greene, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Education.

The On Your Side Investigators wanted to know how other school districts tracked taxpayer-funded supplies for the last three years. They used public records laws to obtain missing inventory reports from more than 10 districts across Oregon and Washington including Beaverton, Gresham-Barlow, Hillsboro, Lake Oswego, North Clackamas, Salem-Keizer, Tigard-Tualatin, West Linn-Wilsonville, Vancouver, and Evergreen.

They cannot provide a full picture across each district since some districts only provided partial lists.

The Beaverton School District provided a missing technology list showing 44 Mac computers - brand new to five years old - are unaccounted for. The list does not include a price but if the district were to replace all of those computers, using the district's education discount, it would cost $44,000.

The North Clackamas School District provided KATU with a list of stolen items from the last three years, including nearly 20 computers, an iPod, an Apple magic mouse and a trumpet. Those cost a total of $15,427.

The Tigard-Tualatin School District also provided a list of 28 technology devices that "appeared missing" in the district since 2011. The list included three MacBook computers, MacBook chargers, and nine iPads - among other things - costing the district a total of $13,815.

At Portland Public Schools (PPS), the largest district in Oregon, all computers and some high-tech items are bar coded and tracked inside the district warehouse. And there's a lot to track. The district spent $3.5 million on technology bundles - including a mobile device, data projector, document camera, speakers and a cart - to be used inside classrooms, according to Sharie Lewis, the Director of Accounting and Payroll at Portland Public Schools.

Lewis gave KATU a tour inside its central warehouse and every item over $5,000 is accounted for.

However, the On Your Side Investigators learned, outside of tech gear, PPS doesn't track assets under $5,000.

"Every administrator knows what they have, they just don't keep a complete list of it," Lewis said. "We do track other items but some things are not cost efficient."

Lewis said all assets the district tracks funnel through her department. She said school supplies and equipment only account for approximately four percent of Portland's overall $210 million budget, so the district scaled back inventory staff from five to two about a decade ago.

"If I kept five people at the district to track those amount of assets, that's about $300,000 a year," Lewis said. "That's not cost efficient for the district to keep that type of staff for those small amount of assets."

It's not just cost; it's also a matter of priorities. This year, Lewis emphasized that extra dollars went toward hiring extra teachers.

Portland Public Schools spokeswoman Christine Miles said, "I think it's very important to remember that while we've been facing budget cuts, it's either people here taking inventory of little things or it’s teachers. This year was the first year in 10 years we were able to put teachers in a classroom."

That said, with a district that encompasses 83 schools and about 20 sites, it is the small-ticket items that add up.

Lewis showed KATU an online list of lost and damaged items voluntarily reported to the district by students and staff. In the last three years, there were 1,030 reports that range from "miscellaneous items taken from teacher's desk" to "LCD recorders".

The list does not include costs.

"It doesn't say that Portland Public Schools is not accountable for the things that we have," Lewis said. "We are accountable for those things and we take responsibility for the assets we have and we ask that all our employees manage the assets they have."

To curb theft, Lewis said PPS rely on  computer tracking software as well as educating staff about better ways to secure their tech bundles, including locking them up daily in areas that are not close to windows.

"I've been here nine years and I'm a good steward of the district funds," Lewis said. "We're prudent with the money that we have and we ask our employees to be efficient with what we have."

Salem-Keizer School District uses similar tactics to curb theft including what Remy calls constant tracking of the district's technology devices.

"If a computer goes down or is taken off of the network, that it would pop up in our central (Technology and Information Services) location," Remy said. "Plus, it would be noticeable."

No one ever solved what happened to the riding lawn mower or the stolen bus wheels but the district did reinforce the cage at the bus barn where the thief broke in.

Remember those stolen laptops from the warehouse? The district later learned an employee swiped the computers. That person was later fired and prosecuted, according to Remy, who said all laptops were returned.

"The 19 computers below are the only items we have gotten back," Remy said, via email. "We rarely get it back if it was really stolen, but sometimes it turns out not to have been stolen in the first place. Sometimes we get restitution payments from the crook if they get caught and prosecuted."

OREGON STATE SCHOOL DISTRICTS

BEAVERTON SCHOOL DISTRICT:

The Beaverton School District provided a missing technology list showing 44 Mac computers - brand new to five years old - are unaccounted for. More specifically, district spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler said the 44 computers "have not checked in for over a year" in the district's asset management application system, called Casper.

Wheeler said each time a machine in the district turns on, it checks itself in with the Casper system. For whatever reason, these 44 did not.

KATU found the machines that didn't check in are sprinkled across two dozen schools and sites in the Beaverton School District.

"When we have staff time to research, we usually find that they have been damaged and sent to surplus without notifying us that they will be removed from service," Wheeler wrote to KATU via email.

The list Beaverton School District provided did not include costs so KATU requested further information.

"The computers are various ages, so there is not a consistent current value," Wheeler responded via email. "Purchase price of new computers purchased are at about $1,000, which includes three year warranty and parts. The actual current value could be far less, based on the age of each computer."

Wheeler said there a total of 10,229 Apple computers in their system.

"It is worth noting that as we have approximately 16,000 machines in our inventory," Wheeler continued, "these 44 represent .00275% of our computer laptops or desktops."

Wheeler also said seven computers were reported stolen in the past two years.

GRESHAM-BARLOW SCHOOL DISTRICT:

The Gresham-Barlow School District only provided KATU with a list of lost technology items in the 2013-2014 school year including four iPads, an iMac, and a MacBook pro computer. The list does not provide costs.

According to the district's chief financial officer, Jerry Jones, three iPads were recovered while insurance paid for a fourth iPad and the MacBook Pro.

Jones said a more comprehensive list would require more time to meet with the different district departments, which individually track inventory, and would cost hundreds of dollars.

HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT:

The Hillsboro School District only provided a report of claims submitted to the district's insurance company. The only item used in a classroom was a stolen laptop valued at $571. All other claims represent damages to the district's buildings or property.

"We are only required to track capital assets and do not maintain inventory lists of items worth less than that," Elisabeth Graser, district spokeswoman, wrote in an email to KATU.

Graser continued, "Luckily, we do not have much trouble with missing or stolen items. If we do, they are handled as individual events at the school level unless the value is more than our deductible of $10,000, at which point it would get turned in to our insurance company and tracked that way."

For tech gear, Graser said the district uses mobile device management (MDM) software loaded on district iPads and laptops.

"If a piece of technology equipment is reported missing, the Technology Department can go back through purchasing records to identify the serial number then use the MDM system to help determine where the device is, when it was last turned on," Graser said. "Since this is a very rare occurrence, it is more time- and cost-effective to backtrack through other systems to find the necessary data rather than to proactively create and maintain a separate list/database of the information."

The district's chief information officer, Don Wolff, clarified that the district does not have the ability to "reach into a laptop to lock or wipe the device." The district only has that ability with iPads.

LAKE OSWEGO SCHOOL DISTRICT:

The Lake Oswego School District did not provide a comprehensive list of lost, damaged or missing inventory within the last three years.

Instead, the district's executive director of finance, Stuart Ketzler, sent KATU the following email:

"The district centrally maintains lists of tagged technology equipment, which generally consists of servers, network devices, computers, certain projectors, document cameras, printers and tablets. The district performs a periodic inventory of this tech equipment approximately two or three times a year, or less often if special projects or other demands do not make that possible.

“The district also maintains a list of capitalized fixed assets and equipment with a historical unit acquisition cost of $2,500 or more. Items are added to that list in advance of our annual independent financial statement audit and are removed from that list as they are sold or otherwise disposed of.

“I have not sought to add up the total number of items tracked in the above referenced lists, but it easily exceeds a couple thousand items but probably less than 4,000.  Each site has separate lists, and some items on the fixed assets list are multiple improvements over a span of many years to a single structure.

“Within the time span of 2011 through 2014 to date, we have not had any reports or identifications of missing, lost or stolen inventory from the above lists, so we do not have lists of missing, lost or stolen items to provide you as you have requested.

“...each individual school or department may maintain separate lists of other items that do not exceed an original acquisition unit cost of $2,500 or more or that are not technology equipment.  We do not require central tracking of these other items, such as sporting equipment, musical instruments, etc.  I have not inquired with each of these separate locations whether any of them have lists with items as you have requested, but with 10 separate schools and many separate departments, this would not be a small task."


NORTH CLACKAMAS SCHOOL DISTRICT:

The North Clackamas School District provided KATU with a list of stolen items from the last three years, including nearly 20 computers, an iPod, an Apple magic mouse and a trumpet, which cost a total of $15,427.

PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT:

Portland Public Schools did not provide a list of missing or stolen items since they only track assets worth $5,000 or more. The district did provide KATU with a list of lost or damaged items voluntarily reported by staff and students. There’s a total of 1,030 reports.

TIGARD-TUALATIN SCHOOL DISTRICT:

The Tigard-Tualatin School District also provided a list of 28 technology devices that "appeared missing" in the district since 2011. The list included three MacBook computers, MacBook chargers, and nine iPads - among other things - costing the district a total of $13,815.

"Most of these devices were purchased with General Fund technology replacement dollars," said David Moore, the district's chief financial officer.

Moore said the Tigard-Tualatin district has approximately 8,000 technology items.

Nothing is missing from the district's inventory of items over $5,000. 

WEST LINN-WILSONVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT:

The West Linn-Wilsonville deputy superintendent, Jane Stickney, said the district was not missing any inventory and subsequently did not provide a missing property report.

"We track everything in the classroom," Stickney said. "It's a habit but it's a good habit because resources given to us should be carefully cared for."

Instead, Stickney provided a document breaking down how the district regularly keeps track of its technology at the district level. Stickney said this document highlights the usefulness of various technologies and how they're transitioned between schools at the district.

The district also provided a list of digital cameras, laptop computers, flat-screen TVs and video cameras worth $18,618 that was stolen from Bolton Primary School in 2011.

In that case, West Linn police arrested a Lake Oswego woman red-handed after an alarm-monitoring company tipped off police in the middle of the night that someone was inside the school building. Arriving officers saw a woman walking from a car parked near the building into the school courtyard, pulling a handtruck loaded with a large flat-screen television.

Stickney said all items were later recovered.

WASHINGTON STATE SCHOOL DISTRICTS

VANCOUVER SCHOOL DISTRICT:

The Vancouver School District provided hundreds of pages of documents including missing and stolen items including at least 21 laptops that were stolen and reported to law enforcement. Neither of those items include a cost assessment.

The district also provided a 2014 state auditor iPad report.

The largest document Vancouver School District provided is well over 100 pages and includes, what appears to be, every fixed asset the district keeps track of, the tagging code, school the item belongs in, the make and model, and serial number among other things.

KATU received these documents Thursday and is still reviewing them.

*The price of the lawn mower was not included in the original list Salem-Keizer provided to KATU. A subsequent list requested by KATU updated the costs that were once missing from the list.