Missing items in Shelby County stem from outdated, unchecked procedures, superintendent says

Shelby County school officials said Tuesday that outdated and unchecked procedures led to thousands of items going missing, including cars, laptops and air conditioners. Those items were flagged in the district’s first external audit of assets in 30 years, released yesterday.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II and board members Kevin Woods, Chris Caldwell and Billy Orgel met with members of the press Tuesday to discuss the audit’s findings. The full audit with the list of missing items hasn’t been released to the public.  

Hopson said that the missing items were likely the result of a combination of factors.

“This is an audit of 30 years in two school systems,” he said. “Some is human error, some is theft, some of it is poor record keeping.”

Board member Orgel said that blaming missing items on the merger was “an excuse.” The missing items are due to “taking 1975 procedures and using them in 2013,” he said.

Woods said the audit was a “necessary first step” in moving the district toward more reliable asset management. He said the district did not intend to defend its practices, but to improve them. “This puts us on notice, and confirms some things we may have been concerned about. It gives us an opportunity to hold ourselves to higher standards.”

“We have to do better,” said superintendent Hopson.

The audit, conducted by ProBar Associates based on a list of assets provided by the district, found some 10,200 items were missing from legacy Shelby County schools’ 56,290 items and around 44,011 items missing from legacy Memphis City Schools’ 189,000 items. That’s 18 percent of the former suburban school districts’ items, and 23 percent of the city schools’. 

The items missing from the legacy Memphis schools were worth approximately $33 million. Those missing from the legacy Shelby County schools were worth close to $15 million. The valuation of the items by the auditing agency did not account for depreciation over time.

Internal audits in legacy Memphis City Schools had turned up occasional irregularities, which were dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

While the results released today alarmed school officials and board members, the initial findings looked worse, Hopson said. It initially appeared that close to 40 percent of items from the legacy city schools and close to half of the suburban district’s items were missing, he said. School officials re-counted objects and found some of those items.

The audit was conducted between June and October 2013 so that the new municipal districts and the merged Shelby County district had an accurate representation of their assets. This audit did not account for items within charter schools or schools run by the state’s Achievement School District.

The audit’s executive summary says some items may have been improperly disposed of, and others may have been lost over the course of school closings and the merger. Other items, including some cars used for drivers’ education programs, had been improperly tagged or otherwise misidentified.

The district plans to do what superintendent Hopson described as a “deep dive” into the 17,000-page audit to identify any “hot spots” or patterns where objects went missing. School officials will be asked to look again for missing items. The district’s auditor Melvin Burgess will also analyze its procedures and provide its plan for dealing with the inventory within 30 days. 

Hopson said terminations are possible if someone had willfully taken items. 

Hopson said he plans to reach out to AutoZone, FedEx, and other corporations in the area to see if they can help the district modernize its systems for tracking items.

The superintendent also said that the central office would plan to take on responsibility for improving its systems, so inventorying did not fall solely on the shoulders of principals. The district plans to investigate other school systems’ best practices for conducting audits, but external audits do not come cheap.

The audit cost the district close to $1 million. “The last media coverage of this focused on why we spent $1 million on counting things we possessed,” said board member Kevin Woods. “Now you see exactly why we spent a million to count assets.”

Memphis-area schools are not the only place where audits have turned up irregularities. An audit of Philadelphia schools last spring found boxes of equipment sitting unused in shuttered school buildings.

SCS Executive Summary of audit

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede