Palm Beach Co. School District failed to collect nearly $2 million in lost book fees since 1990s

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Public Schools in Palm Beach County have failed to collect about $2 million owed by students who lost or damaged their textbooks dating back to the mid 1990s, but most of that debt has already been erased or should be forgotten, the school board's audit committee unanimously recommended today .

Students or their parents are supposed to pay for textbooks that are lost or damaged. A draft report of an audit presented to the committee said that between 2007 and 2010 schools assessed almost $1.4 million in fines for lost and damaged books and collected about 67 percent of that money, with another roughly $464,000 that has not been collected.

"The school district has done an acceptable job on collections," District Auditor Lung Chiu said of the money schools collected during that time period.

But the audit also pointed out that nine high schools had outstanding uncollected balances from before 2007 that totaled another $619,000. Palm Beach Lakes High was responsible for the vast majority of that old debt, with about $397,000 in uncollected money students owed for lost books dating back to 1994.

William Purtell, the district's instructional materials specialist, said the district had a policy until 2007 of forgiving outstanding debts a school had for lost and damaged textbooks when a new principal took over the school. He said Palm Beach Lakes was so high because it had the same principal during that time so the debt was never erased. According to the audit report, another $1 million of debts owed to 70 schools and 33 alternative programs by students who lost their books was written off by the district and erased between 1996 and 2007.

"It is concerning," said Michael Howard, a Jupiter parent who is running for school board and attended the audit committee meeting. "It's a lot of money."

Audit Committee Member Carrie Hill said including the $619,000 in debts dating back to the 1990s was misleading because they were so old and there was little chance of them being collected.

"I don't think we should even be showing this," Hill said. The committee recommended writing off the $619,000 in old debt and trying to continue collecting the $464,000 in debts since 2007.

Purtell said the resources it would take to track down a student from eight years ago or more and try to get textbook money from them would likely outweigh the amount of money the district would collect.

Purtell said that collection efforts by principals have gotten better in recent years. The audit report claims that there has not been much consequence or incentive on schools or students to collect the debts.

The report said that six schools of 58 schools examined never sent out letters of obligation to students informing them that they owed for lost textbooks. The report also states that schools can make a student ineligible for extracurricular activities like the prom, make students do community service or refer the debt to the legal department to try to collect but that holding students out from activities or making them do community service has almost never been used.

The report said no debts had been referred to legal, but Senior Counsel Bruce Harris said the legal department has recently started trying to collect some lost textbook debts. Purtell said his department is encouraging schools to send their textbook debts to the legal department as an effective way to try to collect from parents.

The amount of lost and damaged textbooks could be much higher, said Audit Committee Chair Greg Daniel. The audit also stated that about 45 percent of schools surveyed were not performing the required inventory check each semester to keep track of their textbooks. Purtell said he was concerned because several schools did not report any lost textbooks or ask for any replacement books last year. He said he was doubtful that no students at those schools have lost or damaged their books so he wondered if some students at those schools had lost books they didn't know about or some students at those schools never had their textbooks replaced.

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