$500K in Stolen School Supplies—and No Report

The Seattle School District didn’t think to declare lost and misappropriated items.

While the penny-wise Seattle School District was busy cutting staff and closing schools the past two years, it pound-foolishly lost sight of more than half a million dollars in public property, state investigators say. About $100,000 in equipment and electronics and as much as $500,000 worth of copper wiring and other assets are missing or were stolen from area schools, according to the State Auditor's Office. Though district officials dispute the numbers, they're unable to determine exactly what's gone or put a precise value on the loss. A year after the copper wiring was stolen, the district says the cost is still "unknown."Among the items unaccounted for are a $34,000 John Deere riding mower, 30 cameras and projectors, 15 desktop and laptop computers, and an $8,000 wide-screen TV. Altogether, an investigation by the auditor turned up 82 items, valued at $119,000, that were "lost or misappropriated" from dozens of schools districtwide.None of the missing assets were reported to the state, as required by law. Over the past five years, State Auditor Brian Sonntag says his office has repeatedly told the district to comply with RCW 43.09.185, which requires state agencies and local governments to "immediately report...known or suspected loss of public funds or assets or other illegal activity" to the auditor.That statute and the annual audits help the state backstop police agencies to ensure such losses get attention. "We want to know if the thefts are being investigated by somebody," says auditor's office spokesperson Mindy Chambers. "It also helps us determine where the [loss] risk is the highest."Some of the thefts were reported to police, the district says, but due to the staggered method the schools use to inventory public assets, there's no way to tell what might be missing. "We inventory one-third of our assets a year," says Seattle School District spokesperson David Tucker. "The complete rolling inventory takes three years." During that time, items that can't be located are listed as "status to be determined," Tucker says. Nonetheless, the district cannot currently account for the 82 items.The auditor's office based its findings on two district-provided lists, as well as police reports. The lists also included "instances of misappropriation," including one theft of $800 in cash, "some of which" were reported to law enforcement, the state review found.According to the auditor's July 1 report, high-value copper wiring was also stolen from three Seattle school buildings between 2007 and 2009. District officials told investigators that the cost of replacing the wiring and other assets and repairing the damage at just one of the schools could be "$500,000 or more."Additional notes from investigators—not included in the public audit report, but obtained by Seattle Weekly—state that the most costly wire theft occurred in March 2007 at Viewlands Elementary in north Greenwood. The district closed the school in 2007, but has maintained it for future use. Also looted were copper pipe, brass doorknobs, and other metal objects. "According to Richard Staudt [District Risk Manager] and Mark Pflueger [District Maintenance Services Manager], the amount of damage is possibly in excess of $500,000," the audit notes state. The estimate was based on a district inspection of the break-in, Pflueger told investigators.About 2,000 feet of copper wiring—valued at $20,000, according to what the district told police—was also stolen last year from the Boren Building, now being used for classes by Chief Sealth High students while their school is remodeled. And in 2007, a short stretch of copper wiring was stolen from a portable classroom at Pathfinder Elementary in West Seattle.The district says it has spent about $27,000 repairing damage at the three schools. Spokesperson Tucker says the district's original estimate of $500,000 in damages and stolen assets at Viewlands "is inaccurate—it's less than $100,000." But Tucker concedes that estimate does not include the value of the stolen copper wire and other items that weren't replaced. District officials did not dispute the auditor's $500,000 figure in their official response printed in the audit report, saying only "The District concurs with the auditor's recommendations" to change their theft-reporting practices.In fact, says Joy Stevens, the district's senior legal assistant, the true loss figure "is currently unknown." It is not clear whether the district even filed a claim for the stolen wire, since there's no mention of replacement costs in related insurance documents. "Until the repairs are actually done," Stevens says, "the district will have no way of knowing the exact cost to replace all of the copper wire, or the exact length of the missing copper wire. The cost per linear foot will also be determined if and when the repairs are actually completed." That depends on future use of the building, she says, which hasn't been determined.In its findings, the auditor's office said that by not immediately reporting all known or suspected losses or other illegal activity in recent years, "the district is not complying with the law. Moreover, by not complying with the law, full accountability and transparency is not provided to taxpayers who fund district operations."Tucker says the schools have "now put a system in place to remedy" the breakdowns. Theft reports are being funneled through the district's Safety and Security Office, he says, then to the schools' internal auditor, and finally to the state auditor in Olympia.Noting that the auditor's office doesn't have enforcement powers (the state Attorney General does, but has not been asked to intervene), spokesperson Chambers says school officials "just haven't put a priority on reporting losses the last five years. We hope that changes now."randerson@seattleweekly.com

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