Posted on January 11, 2024

CPS Reports Thousands of Computers Missing — But Rarely Uses $3 Million Tracking System to Find Them

Sarah Karp and Nader Issa, Chicago Sun-Times, January 9, 2024

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.