Saturday, August 29, 2009

Times Weighs in on Equipment Questions

The Seattle Times had an editorial this morning (with a few surprisingly good comments) about the recent relevation that SPS seems to have quite a few items missed with some outright stolen.

From the editorial:

"This is a problem of weak inventory control and reporting systems. The district must adopt an attitude that their money is the public's money. Anything less shows breath-taking contempt for anyone who ever voted for a levy to buy school equipment."

This is true no matter what. All the land, the buildings and the equipment in them are the property of the people of Seattle. The district wants to pass the next BTA which does have a number of equipment purchases in it.

And, on the one hand:

"Some of the thefts were not reported to state auditors, as required by law."

On the other hand:

"An internal auditor was hired two years ago to ensure the district complies with state auditing rules. State auditors say they are pleased with the improvements so far."

Great but failure to secure vacant buildings has got to be at the top of the list because then you almost can't even lease them if the wiring is gone (as happen at Viewlands with its copper wiring). Also, how does a John Deere riding lawn mower just vanish?

From the comments (and some of these were already reflected by readers here who commented on Charlie's post on this subject):

"As a retired school employee (not in Seattle) I can vouch for the need for better inventory control. I would bet that a lot of the "missing" equipment is still in the schools being used every day. Teachers are under the gun to teach and when you need something you grab it and ask questions later, if you think about it. Stuff disappears from your radar screen for years and then shows up again when you find out from a student that it was in "Mr. Smith's room" all along.

The main culprit here is time. Teachers simply don't have adequate time to plan for class, let alone be good stewards of the inventory list. Add to that the mounting accountability paperwork and taking care of equipment drops to the bottom of the list."


"Even with an obvious theft it gets weird, witnesses saw a van pickup 6 printers off a loading dock at a CC. Within a few minutes the police were called and caught the guy unloading them at his business. They then held them as evidence for so long that the school had to order replacements - how do those get accounted for.

You can force the schools to buy, install and support the latest in asset tracking systems - which is not cheap - but then you run right into the taxpayers that thinks any money not spent in the classroom teaching is wasted. Time to make up our minds."

Good question. We want buildings maintained. Okay, define "maintained". I can't tell you how many people, both living in neighborhoods and visiting a school for tours, will say they are turned off by lack of "curb appeal". They see things like unmowed lawns, old paint, dying landscapes, old playgrounds. BUT, that's doesn't make it an unsafe building. What's the minimum for a building in use? A mothballed building?

As I mentioned in another post, I'm sure the district would say that the cutbacks to the maintenance budget at SPS was so the money went into the classroom. For what? Was it for new equipment that teachers don't have time to track? And where does the old equipment go? It seemingly needs to be tracked as well. Maybe the old stuff should just get a label once they are not going to be used again anywhere.

I remember at my sons' elementary school, I'd do tours and parents would anxiously ask about computers and availability. I would say, yes, we have a lot of computers and they would nod with relief. However, there is then the issue of having someone who troubleshoots the computers and maintains the server. Without that, the computers are just boxes taking up space. And, when they become obsolete, they have to go somewhere and be tracked.


Charlie Mas said...

Regarding building maintenance -

Members of the NOVA community spent a good part of Saturday at the Meany building, washing windows, pulling weeds, and installing some new plants - generally improving the "street appeal" of the building.

Volunteers like this are available and willing to do any number of other jobs around the school. As we have already discussed, the District and the schools don't use them often enough. It can, however, cross a line.

There are people who are paid by the District to look after the plants at our schools and these people have a union. At what point does the work of volunteers become an issue for the union? It's okay for us to show up one day, pull weeds, mix in some compost, and plant some stuff. Is it okay for us to power wash the building? Is it okay for us to paint it? Is it okay for us to pull wire through the building to set up a network? Is it okay for us to replace broken window panes? Is it okay for us to replace single pane windows? Can we patch a leak in the roof? Can we remove mold?

It goes beyond maintenance. Can a community pay for additional teachers? for non-standard math materials? for a computer lab? for an addition? Here's a trickier question: if a community applies for and wins a grant, can a foundation pay for these things? Can the University of Washington pay for math coaches for just one school, but a PTA be prohibited from hiring a math coach for their school? Would the District allow a contribution for the benefit of a single school from, say, the Alliance for Education or the ABC Foundation, that they would not allow from the school's PTA?

Don't all such donations and volunteer efforts invite inequities when one school community can do these things while another school community cannot? And what would be the benefit to students if it were disallowed? What's the thinking there? Are we not supposed to do anything for our kids that is more than the least that any family does for theirs?

And how do these gifts end up skewing the District's spending? PTAs end up paying for carpets and furniture (the PTA at my kids' elementary school bought a classroom worth of desks and chairs every year) - stuff that the District is supposed to pay for - because the District won't pay for it (our school wasn't scheduled to get new furniture for about another ten years), in large part because they know that the PTA will.

And those things that the PTA buys - do they become school property? District property? If your PTA buys something for your school, can the District move it to another school? They can and they do. Think about the musical instruments that are going from Washington to Hamilton as just one example. Do you think the money for those came from the District's coffers or from Friends of Washington Music? Who owns the steel drums from Summit?

There are a lot of different issues swirling around with this: questions of equity between communities, questions of equitable treatment of donors. A lot of these questions could be resolved if the Board would adopt a policy on contributions.

I can very easily imagine a school community deciding that they will raise the money for math materials that are more supportive of direct instruction, pay for a curriculum guide and pacing guide for the alternative materials, pay to have the teachers trained to use it, maybe even pay for a math coach. Would the District prohibit it? Could the District prohibit it?

And could they or would they if the materials, guides, training, and coach were paid for by National Science Foundation instead of the PTA?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Excellent questions. Here's what I know:

- you can pay for teachers because obviously, it's being done. Now the money has to be handled in a certain way (likely through the Alliance) but it can be done. I have a thread I want to write soon but I found evidence that yes, a foundation did pay for a teacher for one school.

- I believe the district owns whatever you buy. However, McGilvra bought (or had made) a portable which they own. I don't know how this worked out.

- I don't know how far you can go with parents doing stuff. We were told at Roosevelt that we had to hire "experts" and not parents to rehang all our art. (RHS opened in 1922 which means we have a lot of art. The district took it all down for the remodel but didn't put anything back up. That became the job of the PTA and the school librarian.) We were told it was for seismic reasons but watching them work, parents could have done it the same way. Anything electrical, forget it.

- I have said it before, PTA should be for enhancements. Not repairs, not buying basics like desks.

- I think parents could offer to purchase something and say that they own it if the school closes or that program goes away. The district might go along if it were desperate for said items.

Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

Charlie said: And those things that the PTA buys - do they become school property? District property?

Melissa said: I think parents could offer to purchase something and say that they own it if the school closes or that program goes away.

Once you make a donation to the District, and that donation is in a writing of some sort, it becomes District property because you donated it to them. The District can prevent you from providing something such as desks or other equipment (not that it would prevent you...I'm just sayin'...) because the location where the donated property would be located is the property of the District and they can be held liable for any injuries that occur due to that donated equipment. It all comes down to them not wanting to be sued.

As for "where does the old equipment go? It seemingly needs to be tracked as well" see RCW 28A.335.180. It lays out the requirements for the District to follow. As noted by Melissa, the surplus equipment needs to be tracked also - and since we only have one person doing our inventory, that person can't keep up with that either.

That said, the board doesn't give a rat's behind about accountability. They only care about the actions that will get them noticed so they can get re-elected. Making sure the district's finances are accounted for correctly, which includes equipment safeguards, does not appear to be one of their priorities.

Josh Hayes said...

I may be wrong about this (what else is new?) but I think the steel drums from Summit are a good example -- I believe the school community paid for those drums themselves, but with the closure of Summit the drums become District property, to move or dispose of as they wish.


(You need a large, relatively sound-proof space to be employed, and AS1 lacks that. I wonder where the drums wound up? Anyone know?)

Melissa Westbrook said...

All I know is that McGilvra parents contracted for and continue to own, via some kind of MOU or business agreement, the portable they bought for the school. So it can be done.

Danny K said...

Isn't this special pleading, Melissa? Every organization bigger than a Scout troop owns a laser printer or two, and you don't need hi-tech software to do inventory or maintain accountability. In the military, we did it annually -- you walk around your area, you take inventory, you sign off on what you have. You better be able to account for it next year!

In a district with such a big and expensive administrative section, they ought to be able to track big ticket items year by year. Clearly, nobody is tracking them, and if something goes missing, nobody is held responsible.