Ethical Educator

Profiting Off Excess
School Administrator, August 2019

Scenario: To make way for new PCs to be installed over the summer, the school district’s facilities director asks teachers and school staff to place existing computers in the hallway for trash pickup. A teacher gathers several of the old computers in his classroom and uses them for backup over several more years. Now the teacher is retiring and wants to sell the PCs with the proceeds being donated to charity. Would you allow this?

Max McGee: 
While sad to say, the adage “no good deed goes unpunished” holds true in this case assuming that the computers were purchased with public funds and that the school district does not have a policy or regulations regarding disposal of material assets. Any proceeds from selling the equipment need to be returned to the district or to the taxpayers.  

Our trusty teacher’s resourcefulness in using the machines as backups as well as his/her sincere altruism definitely should be commended.  As superintendent, I would strongly urge the teacher’s principal and business official to find a way to ensure any revenue from a sale be used to fund a classroom, school or district equipment purchase or program that matters to the retiree.
Maggie Lopez:
The PCs don’t belong to the teacher. They are owned by the school district. Whether or not they were going to be thrown out, they still are considered district property. These computers were paid for with taxpayer dollars, so they don’t belong to any individual. Accountability is expected for any items the district purchases with public funds.  

The teacher should not be selling these to garner funds even if he has good intentions by donating the funds to a charity. District policy ought to address how to dispose of school assets such as personal computers, inclusive of how to address hard drives that may contain student data. 

Initially, the district’s facilities director should have applied existing policies or worked with the superintendent to develop a policy regarding disposal of district assets. This would have been the most appropriate protocol as opposed to just putting computers in the trash. These computers most probably contained confidential student data. Simply disposing of computers by placing them in the trash or selling them puts these students’ data at risk. Typically, the protocol for computer disposal can involve hard-drive shredding, which would render the computers useless.
Shelley Berman:
The teacher’s intentions are positive. However, the computers remain the property of the school district. Many people don’t understand the legal requirements around the disposal of district equipment. 

Most states have specific requirements for designating equipment as surplus and then disposing of it in an appropriate way. Often, a district must provide the public with an opportunity to purchase surplus equipment at a public sale before it is donated or designated as trash. Computers, in particular, must undergo a process to ensure that all district-related information (such as licensed software, names, and test results) is permanently removed.

Although the district was collecting the equipment for disposal, it cannot be claimed by a teacher as a personal possession. Such a move would give staff an unfair advantage over other members of the public to benefit from the district’s disposal of surplus equipment that had been purchased with public tax dollars or through a grant or donation to the district. In addition, the teacher’s choice of a charitable organization could become a source of controversy. 

Had the teacher purchased this equipment at a district auction or sale, he could have sold it and used the proceeds in any way he chose. However, in this case, the equipment remains district property and must be disposed of according to state regulations and district procedures.

Meira Levinson:

This teacher’s commitment to reusing and recycling school resources in order to support student learning is admirable. His decision to enable further reuse and donate to charity is also worthy of school district support — assuming he takes the right precautionary steps before and after selling the computers.

First, the teacher must ensure that all identifiable data, such as student work, grades, parent information, internet search histories and so forth, is securely deleted from the PCs before they are sold. Hard drives should be wiped clean and restored to factory state. This also will ensure that any software that has been licensed by the school district is removed before the PCs are transferred to other owners. But once the teacher has achieved these goals (and ideally had an IT professional confirm that no data is recoverable), then he should feel free to sell the computers.

Second, since the PCs were initially public resources (although ones that had been designated for the trash bins some years before), the teacher should probably exercise caution in selecting a charity for donation. Good choices could include youth-oriented charities, those that serve the local community and those that attract support across the political spectrum. Even if it would not be ethically inappropriate, the teacher should probably not select a charity that is politically or ideologically divisive.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.