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Pinellas superintendent to investigate if annual auction coming up short

Pinellas County school superintendent John Stewart said Monday he's investigating the processes the district uses to sell off surplus property.

Stewart said he was "distressed" by a Tampa Bay Times story published Saturday describing how the district, at its annual auction, appeared to be selling equipment for far less than it was worth.

"I want to instill in the district before I leave a value for every asset that is here," he said.

Stewart, who will retire in December, said he'd like a team of teachers, principals and others to inspect equipment before an auction to ensure the items aren't still of use to local schools. He also wants to explore moving toward more online auctions rather than using in-person sales.

Tim Russell, a Pinellas Park pawnbroker who volunteers at Northeast High, raised questions about public waste after he walked away from the school district's April 28 auction having spent less than $900 on schools' castoff cameras, video cameras, projectors and more.

Russell said he has already recouped his investment and expects to make $25,000 to $30,000 on resales. Since the Times printed his story, Russell said, several teachers have come to Big Time's Pawn to thank him for speaking out.

Auctioneer Andrew Harrow of Harrow's Auctions in Tampa said he has organized the school district's auction for 20 years.

Reached by phone on Monday, he said he has consistently been the low bidder for the job. He criticized Pinellas leaders for recently experimenting with online sales, saying the online vendor charges much higher commissions than his 12 percent.

He said it's the School Board's job to sign off on all of the items for sale. "We don't examine every lot that's there," he said.

School board members said they want to hear from Stewart during today's board workshop.

"It's kind of upsetting that so much money is lost," said Janet Clark.

"I would like a complete investigation," said Linda Lerner.

"Was there something we could have done to prevent this or was this something we went into not knowing all the facts?" asked Carol Cook.

Hillsborough and Pasco county school districts use the online auction website GovDeals.com to help dispose of surplus equipment, in addition to using local auction houses for things like automotive property.

But there's one thing Stewart and board members all said they want a better handle on. And that's exactly why all of this excess property exists in such tight budgetary times.

Pinellas' recent auction brought in $206,906 for the school district and $28,188 for Harrow's. Items for sale included projectors, Smartboards, printers, intercom speakers and science equipment.

Kendra Goodman, purchasing agent for the Pasco School District, said she doesn't often see such items go for sale there. Even unusable items are cannibalized for parts and repair, she said.

"There's not been much in the last few years because of the budget," she said.

Stewart, who has been leading the district on a temporary basis since September, said Pinellas needs to do better. He said he wasn't aware of the issues Russell raised until last week.

"I learned from a frugal mother never to spend a nickel more than you have and don't just spend it because you have it," Stewart said. "I practice that same philosophy today."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@tampabay.com.

Pinellas superintendent to investigate if annual auction coming up short 05/14/12 [Last modified: Monday, May 14, 2012 10:23pm]
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