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Losses add up as laptops, equipment vanish from area schools

TAMPA — The great thing about laptop computers — or maybe it's not so great — is that they're portable.

Three disappeared from Tampa's James Elementary School. Another three vanished from the North Tampa Alternative School, along with an LCD projector, according to a report covering the first three months of this year.

Include the other things schools lose — the French horn, the bassoon, and would you believe a tractor from a school in Ruskin? — and it adds up to equipment that cost taxpayers nearly $100,000.

Stolen, damaged and missing property, which must be accounted for under state law, has always posed a challenge for school districts.

The challenges grow with each new high-tech portable device. And they stand to intensify as computers begin to replace textbooks, in keeping with a statewide push toward digital learning.

"Better resale," said John Just, assistant superintendent and technology chief for the Pinellas County schools, which just had $19,000 worth of equipment stolen from Perkins Elementary School.

In Pasco County, officials are trying to find ways to keep better track of their property, having learned recently that items they lost this past decade would now be worth $58,000.

"I think the taxpayers would have a real problem in seeing how many things aren't able to be located," chairwoman Joanne Hurley told the Pasco School Board earlier this month. "We need to do a better job of keeping our eyes open."

School officials say equipment is often misplaced as employees move from one location to another. Some of those transfers are unavoidable under state law. "With class size, you have to be flexible," Just said.

And you have to report misplaced items even if they turn up months or years later, said Hillsborough schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty. Sometimes police recover the items. But unless there is evidence of a crime, they are listed as missing.

Hegarty cautioned against placing too much stock in the purchase prices. Items in the first-quarter report, for example, were bought for $94,000 but are now valued at $18,000.

Many would need to be replaced anyway, Hegarty said. "Still, if the proper paperwork is not completed that shows that a laptop from 2000 was replaced with a newer one, it is listed as lost."

The quarterly amounts can be as low as $30,000 for July through September 2010 (current value: $13,000) or as high as $294,000 for January through March 2010. For the latter period, it was impossible to estimate the total present value because no current values were listed for 71 computers and laptops missing from Middleton High School in Tampa.

Hegarty said that report likely represented years of losses at Middleton, and that the high school's latest property control audit was satisfactory.

In Pinellas, the June 15 break-in at Perkins put that district's loss in just computers and laptops at $40,000 for the last three months, Just said.

At Perkins, students can take the laptops home if parents agree to be liable for them. They can get insurance through the school or list the devices on homeowner policies.

Pinellas school employees also are held responsible for laptops, which generally are not insured. In some, but not all situations, they are required to repay the district when laptops disappear. The district made no exception when someone walked off with deputy superintendent James Madden's laptop at a meeting.

Still, the problem of itinerant laptops has officials proceeding carefully as they begin issuing technology to students.

Clearwater High School, which last year attracted national attention with its students' use of Kindle readers, benefited from 3G technology that made it possible to "brick," or disable, the devices if they were lost or stolen.

Just said students were more likely to break the Kindles than misplace them. And, although most families embraced the technology, he said, "We had about 100 parents who said, 'Johnny's just not responsible enough.' "

In Hillsborough, the school district went with a lower-tech solution to keep track of its laptops.

They are now engraved with the school district name.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Losses add up as laptops, equipment vanish from area schools 07/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 16, 2011 8:23pm]
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