Chicago Public Schools reports up to 77,000 computers lost or stolen

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Thrust into online learning during the pandemic, Chicago Public Schools spent hundreds of millions in federal COVID-19 relief money on laptops and other devices over the past few years, heralding a monumental shift for a school system in which computer access was limited to one where it’s now plentiful.

But CPS dived headlong out of the tech dark ages without strong tracking systems and has failed to upgrade them in recent years. Now, CPS’ inspector general says as many as 77,000 devices — worth more than $23 million — were marked as lost or stolen in just one year.

Some of those devices didn’t disappear but were simply sitting on shelves or in desk drawers unaccounted for, CPS IG William Fletcher said in his 2023 annual report, blaming a flawed inventory system he said needed “serious overhaul.” And CPS rarely used a tracking system to find its computers despite spending $3 million on it.

This echoes reports by the Chicago Sun-Times and by WBEZ and Chalkbeat Chicago in 2022 that the school system lacked a reliable way to track devices.

Some attrition would be expected in a large school system, but Fletcher said 11% of devices were marked as lost or stolen during the 2021-2022 school year. An expert cited by the inspector general called that an “alarming” amount. In the 2020-21 school year, 8% of the district’s technology assets were listed as lost, up from 3% in 2018-19, the Sun-Times reported. Those assets also included air purifiers and projectors.

Responding to the inspector general’s report, CPS notes that for the first time in the district’s history there is a device for every student and that some loss is to be expected. But officials said they were “concerned about the loss of any public asset and we remain committed to improving our tracking and device retention methods.”

In many cases, students and teachers were not asked to return computers, the inspector general found. The annual report highlights some egregious cases, including a teacher who was listed as losing 10 computers in one year, but eight were later found just sitting in the school.

At 36 schools, all the devices assigned to students were marked as lost or stolen, but Fletcher said it was not clear there was an expectation for students to return the devices.

“There are just black holes in terms of where devices were,” he said, noting that every school seemed to do audits differently and no one was held accountable.

A long-standing computer tracking problem

The report looks at the device audits for the 2021-2022 school year, yet there’s no evidence the school district improved its processes last school year, even though officials knew there were problems.

The December 2022 WBEZ/Chalkbeat investigation found that device availability wasn’t regularly updated, and there wasn’t meaningful information about whether computers were used at all.

Among other issues, WBEZ/Chalkbeat found the school district depends on schools to take a regular inventory, but the process is time-consuming and only 35% of Chicago’s 500 district-run schools have a technology coordinator. The OIG report notes that many of the schools without technology coordinators hire outside vendors to complete the inventory, but these vendors often are not properly trained and hastily mark devices as lost/stolen without looking for them.

As noted by the inspector general report and WBEZ/Chalkbeat, this flawed inventory process has serious implications. One principal told WBEZ/Chalkbeat that CPS sent him 100 computers he didn’t need, but the principal admitted he didn’t complete the inventory because, with all his other work, he did not have time.

Not only can an incorrect listing cause CPS to make unnecessary purchases, it also “increases the risk that the asset will eventually become permanently lost or stolen. This is a dangerous practice,” the inspector general said.

CPS responds

The school district says it is enhancing and streamlining its inventory system, and plans to hold principals and other staff accountable for complying with the asset management policy, according to a statement.

Chicago Public Schools agreed to implement all of the inspector general’s recommendations regarding this issue, to some degree. When it comes to holding principals and students accountable for lost devices, CPS says it will create a “cross-functional committee” to determine specifics. The district noted that it wants to “decide the best way to hold students accountable without overburdening families that are at or near poverty level.”

Another OIG recommendation is to try to recover lost or stolen devices. CPS said it sent “recovery” messages this summer to 50,000 devices that had been reported lost or stolen over the last several years. About 12,000 were brought back. CPS said most of them were located inside schools. 

The school system also spends $2.6 million annually on services that allow the district to freeze devices or to geo-track them, but in the school year that ended in June 2022, only 11 devices were recovered using those services, according to the OIG report. 

CPS requires schools to fill out police reports for all items designated as lost or stolen, but the inspector general said this was a useless activity.

“Indeed, key CPS officials could not cite any examples of any tech device marked lost in 2021-2022 that was later returned based on a Lost Property police report. CPS is eliminating the requirement that lost property police reports be filed, per the OIG recommendation,” the CPS IG wrote in the report.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ, Nader Issa for the Chicago Sun-Times

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