GULFPORT — Josie Pitzen sat in the lunchroom of Gulfport Elementary School Wednesday night, hands folded and her smile widening as she talked with her father about the new laptop she would be taking home that evening.
“I’m halfway excited because I don’t know if we’ll have more homework now,” said 8-year-old Pitzen, whose family computer is usually monopolized by her two older brothers. “I like playing on the computer at home, so it might make it more fun.”
But before Gulfport Elementary administrators sent 101 Dell laptops home with third- and fourth-grade students, parents had to sit through a training class and sign contracts promising to bring them back.
The number of items disappearing from Pinellas County Schools has been slowly decreasing in recent years; but with more investments in classroom technology and a statewide push for online testing, the school district is cracking down on security.
“There’s always a danger when we’re rolling something like this out that more laptops or iPads will disappear, but I don’t see that fear slowing down efforts to give students a quality education,” said Superintendent Michael Grego. “Our inventory control has really tightened up; our parents are incredibly responsive, so we’re going to do what we have to to keep up with the incredible advancements begin made in education.”
Saxophones, laptops, iPads and even a $1,998 pressure-washer — all bought with taxpayer money — have disappeared from Pinellas schools over the past three years, but the school district’s running list of lost and stolen items is getting shorter each year.
Since the 2010-2011 school year, Pinellas schools have reported 1,211 stolen, missing or destroyed items, totaling more than $1.8 million. For the 2010-2011 school year, 567 items were on that list and added up to $821,573.62. In 2011-2012, 335 items worth $549,595.48 disappeared; and last school year’s losses totaled 309 items worth $467,311.34.
“Several years ago, when I first came on the [School} Board, I was very curious about the high number of tagged equipment that goes missing every year,” said School Board member Janet Clark. “There are many more names this year of schools and departments that have perfect inventories, and the number of missing items is reducing with each report.
“We’ve turned a corner with this issue, and I appreciate that our citizens’ tax dollars are being taken care of.”
Several new policies give school officials extra incentive to keep tabs on equipment. This school year, each individual teacher is responsible for all of the inventory in his classroom, instead of leaving it up to principals and department heads to keep a running tab of items, said Deputy Superintendent Bill Corbett. Storing classroom technology on rolling carts or in locking cabinets also makes it easier for teachers to see when equipment is missing right away. In some cases, employees are expected to pay the school district back for missing items.
“It’s more people responsible for less stuff, which seems to lead to us being more effective at keeping track of everything,” said Lakewood High School Principal Bob Vicari. “No one wants to be on the hook for missing items.”
It’s a good thing, too, as a school’s missing inventory is factored into the principal’s year-end evaluation and monitored by the state. At Lakewood, $32,508 worth of equipment was reported missing last school year, the second-highest amount in the school district after Gibbs High School, which reported a $42,500 loss.
Though the numbers seem steep, it’s also important to remember that the current processes don’t take an item’s depreciation over time into account, Vicari said. Now, teachers are keeping better track of outdated inventory and making sure old equipment is left off the list.
“If someone just throws out an old Zenith VCR that’s maybe worth 17 cents because they think it’s junk without waiting for it to be taken off our inventory, the school is charged like you’re missing a $1,200 VCR, because that’s what you paid for it in 1994,” Vicari said. “A lot of times the things that get us in trouble are obsolete equipment like old slide projectors and reel-to-reel sound systems that you know darn well nobody stole, someone just threw them out because they’re disgusting, and nobody wants to touch them.”
While switching to tablets and laptops may be more expensive for the school district, it also has it’s advantages. The electronic devices come programed with numerous tracking devices, which make locating missing or stolen goods a faster and easier process, said Michael Bessette, the school district’s associate superintendent for operational services. The tracking devices are what led to the September arrest of 37-year-old Angeleta Washington, a school district IT technician, who is accused of pawning two iPads and a laptop assigned to Boca Ciega High School and Gulfport Elementary.
Laptops and tablets are also more convenient for students to keep tabs on, said Largo High School Principal Brad Finkbiner. Largo High will be completely rebuilt over the next few years, and there are currently discussions on whether to even include student lockers in the new school’s design. If textbooks can be downloaded onto a tablet, there would really be no need, Finkbiner said.
“There would also be less places to hide things,” Finkbiner said.
Grego and principals say student theft is rarely an issue, especially when there’s a substantial investment in their materials.
Over the next few weeks, the school district will be giving out enough take-home laptops for 60 percent of the student populations in its 37 Title 1 elementary schools. The computers cost about $600 apiece — roughly, $4 million total. Last school year, the school district gave out about 160 laptops to students who are still learning English. None of those devices disappeared, Grego said.