A week after The Examiner revealed tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ property was being improperly and possibly illegally sold to area scrap metal dealers in Beaumont, the newspaper has confirmed Beaumont Independent School District police are on the case.
BISD PD Chief Clydell Duncan said his agency was investigating the newspaper’s findings and even asked for photographs taken by the reporter during an investigation into property being removed from Eugene Field Elementary.
“We will be doing an investigation,” Duncan said during a telephone interview Wednesday, July 6. “Right now we are trying to put it all together and develop a strategy. We want it to be a fair and complete investigation. We are not trying to cover anything up.”
The investigation comes after two school board trustees, Tom Neild and Mike Neil, went to Jefferson County District Attorney Tom Maness’ office this past week on the heels of The Examiner’s story. The two trustees were appalled when they learned that individuals were removing desks, tables, audio-visual carts and hundreds of chairs, among other items, and bringing them to area scrap yards where they were being sold for cash. The scrapped items could easily be seen at two area metal recycling centers and both companies – CMC Recycling on College Street and Wright’s Scrap & Recycling on Washington Boulevard – were both willing to cooperate with the investigation.
At Wright’s, corporate president Mel Wright walked the property with a reporter and showed him dozens of metal chairs with colorful plastic backs and seats, several filing cabinets, metal desks, gym lockers and other items he had purchased from someone claiming the items were being discarded by the district. The story was much the same at CMC Recycling, according to manager David McCallon. Both men said they would be happy to provide law enforcement with the names of the individuals who were selling BISD’s property.
When asked about the direction of the school district’s investigation into the sale of BISD property, Duncan said, “We will be taking witness statements and (the investigation) will be subject to the district attorney’s review, so it will be done in a very official manner.”
Neild said he went to the DA’s office to ask for an investigation because he wants to ensure taxpayer property is not being sold for private gain. He said the district has a responsibility to dispose of items in accordance with the law and he did not believe that occurred with the items at Field Elementary. But that wasn’t the only school where items were removed by the public. Someone at BISD also allowed citizens to take items from Dunbar Elementary School and possibly other schools being slated for demolition as part of the district’s $388.6 million bond initiative.
“We just needed to have the DA look into it,” Neild said. “If there is a problem then we need to take it further. There was enough concern in the community after your article ran that we need to do our due diligence and have this reviewed.”
Neild also said he wrote BISD Superintendent Carrol Thomas a letter seeking a criminal probe of what took place at Field Elementary.
Assistant District Attorney Tom Rugg confirmed the meeting with the two school board members and the investigation by BISD police. He said since the incident happened on BISD’s campuses, the school district’s law enforcement agency would be the one to investigate, but he added that his office recommended the school district’s police force seek outside help if it ran into any roadblocks.
“We contacted them and let them know that we wanted to see their investigation when it was complete,” Rugg said. “And, yes, we suggested they get help from an outside agency but we will see where they take it.”
Rugg explained it is often difficult to investigate within one’s own governmental entity.
“It’s not always easy to conduct an investigation where some of the suspects may be co-employees. Sometimes your objectivity can get a little clouded when investigating those that you work with,” he said. “We wanted them to know that if they needed help then they could contact the Beaumont Police Department or the Texas Rangers. Additionally, once we get a copy of their investigation, if our office has any remaining questions or needs to clear something up, we can have our investigators pursue it wherever it leads. Right now we are just awaiting their results.”
On a separate note, a letter sent by Thomas to BISD trustees outlined the manner in which the superintendent believes the property should be disposed of.
• The existing site will be given first choice to select any of the property that they would like.
• Other sites/schools would then be allowed to select items.
• If there is any property of value at this point, BISD will store it.
• Lastly, civic groups or non-profit organizations could then be allowed to come in and take items they can use.
• Properties left behind would then be demolished along with the facility.
Thomas then said in the letter that “at the last board meeting we spoke of this process and there was no opposition at that time, nor any at the building and grounds meeting. Let me remind you, that we have combined 10 schools into five the last few months and there is no space for this property. It would be more costly to store, salvage or conduct a sale than the property is worth. The district will continue to dispose of surplus/no value properties in this manner.”
According to Tom Neild and Mike Neil, as well as a review of the video from the most recent BISD board meeting, there was no discussion involving the disposal of surplus property. There was a discussion at the BISD Building and Grounds Committee meeting but that group is advisory in nature and cannot take action or require the school board to take action one way or the other.
“That is not true. I actually went back and looked at the video of the board meeting and there was no mention of this matter,” Neil said. “The only time it came up was at a building and grounds meeting. If Robert Zinglemann, (BISD director of business and finance), would have told us there was no value to these items, I would have questioned that.
“To say this is the way we do it and this is the way we are going to continue to do it when two of those steps are in conflict with the law I think speaks for itself. This is wrong and it is something we are going to have to bring up.”
Thomas also wrote in the letter that some people did improperly take items from Eugene Field Elementary.
“In case (sic) of the incident at Eugene Field, persons did come in and take some of the property from the school before administration had a chance to evaluate it and declare the properties had no value.”
But that is also not consistent with a BISD surveillance video of the incident at Eugene Field Elementary on the day the items were taken. According to the video, the first BISD workers arrived at the campus at 10:44 a.m. in a white van. At 10:45 a.m. a white pickup truck with a lowboy arrived. Buses with dozens of workers then arrived at 10:47 a.m. Those workers began going into the school and removing items. At 10:54 a.m. the workers begin loading the items into private vehicles and rented moving vans. By 11:08 a.m. the video shows a white Honda Ridgeline and a Dodge pickup – both with lowboy trailers – loaded down with items from the school.
A copy of the video was formally requested pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act and will be made available to the newspaper when administrators return from a two-week summer vacation July 18.
Neil said he doesn’t want innocent people to be prosecuted for doing something they thought they had the OK to do. Instead, he wants those behind the BISD property scandal to be held accountable.
“I want anyone who knew what they were doing was against the law to be prosecuted,” Neil said. “If someone at BISD told individuals to come get this stuff, we would be interested in finding out who the person at BISD was who gave that permission. We need to get to the bottom of who is behind this and who gave permission for this stuff to be given away.”
According to the Texas Education Agency, BISD did not follow the proper procedures in disposing of the items.
“No, they can’t give it away or donate it,” DeEtta Culbertson, TEA spokesperson, told The Examiner for its original story. “The board has to put a value on it and declare it as surplus. Then they must have an auction and try to sell it. If they determine there is no value then the district should take it to the dump and if they get something (money) for it, then money would go to the general fund. The district should have a policy on surplus furniture.”
BISD assistant spokesperson Craig Eichhorn said he could not provide further insight into the letter written by Thomas to trustees because he had not seen it. He did confirm that BISD uses an auction company for some items but was not sure what was involved with that service.
“I know there are surplus portable buildings that are being sold by Horn Auctions, but as far as selling the desks and chairs that you reported on last week, I am not sure,” Eichhorn said.
A voice-mail message left on Thomas’ cell phone seeking comment was not returned.