From the Philadelphia “Bulletin”
City Schools Deny Controller Access To Its Artwork
First in a series exploring irregularities in the Philadelphia School District

Philadelphia – In a stunning move, the city’s School District continues its refusal to allow the city controller access to audit a significant portion of its multimillion dollar art collection.

Controller Alan Butkovitz and Deputy Commissioner Harvey Rice made the audit a priority after former school district CEO Paul Vallas ordered the majority of artwork removed from the schools in the middle of the night over the 2003-04 Christmas break.

Mr. Butkovitz informed the district that he would be conducting an audit of the facility where the art was allegedly taken, and on February 15, 2007, he and his team of auditors went to the storage building. However, they were physically turned away and denied access, under direct order of the district. To date, it has been 491 days since his request was denied.

“When we attempted to visit the storage facility and determine whether or not all 220 paintings were in fact located there, we were denied access,” he said. When asked the reason why the district has refused his office access to audit the collection, Mr. Butkovitz stated, “They are demanding (that we) sign a restrictive confidentiality agreement which the controller has never done with any public agency that the controller has auditing authority over, nor will such an agreement as presented by the school district be signed.”

When queried about the reasoning behind the bizarre nature of the confidentiality agreement request, Butkovitz emphatically stated, “That is a question for the school district! We believe that the school district’s demand for the controller to sign their confidentiality agreement violates the standards of transparency and full disclosure which the citizens deserve.”

But the more puzzling, and as yet unanswered, question is why artwork valued in the millions was removed from the schools in the first place. “We are not certain as to the reason. This would be a question better asked of the school district,” Butkovitz said.

The Bulletin repeatedly contacted Mr. Vallas for comment but received no response. Mr. Vallas resigned his position in May 2007, and is currently the Superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District. Additionally, requests for information were made to James Nevels, former chairman of the School Reform Commission (SRC), Dr. Arlene Ackerman, the newly-installed superintendent of the Philadelphia school system, and Sandra Dungee Green, current chairwoman of the SRC. No calls were returned.

Even more startling are the results of the audit the Controller was able to complete of the remaining artwork throughout the school district. Mr. Butkovitz’s office conducted a sampling audit of 403 (of a total of 969) works of art. The objective was to locate and inventory each item and examine them for possible damage. However, a staggering 21 percent of the collection could not be found in the locations given by the District. According to the school district’s own records, the estimated value of the missing artwork was approximately $838,000. The value of the entire art collection is placed between $8 and $30 million. (The exact value is impossible to determine because the 220 pieces in storage cannot be inventoried by the controller.)

In addition to the missing artwork (pictured in this weekend’s Bulletin), Mr. Butkovitz’s office discovered significant discrepancies that have not yet been resolved, among them:

54 art items that had originally been held in a storage facility were returned to the School District. Of that number, 40, or 74 percent, have not been located.

Between Dec. 15, 2006 and Jan. 2007, the controller’s office was given four different artwork inventory lists by the school district after auditors found mistakes and inaccuracies.

Three items included on the district’s inventory list did not in fact belong to the school district, including the painting “Beach Scene” by Lewis Smith, valued at $50,000. That painting belongs to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

The location codes for schools and other school district buildings where art items were supposedly located kept changing. Single codes were used to specify multiple locations, and multiple codes for single locations.

Twenty-six art items with a value of $292,000 appeared to be duplicated on the school district’s records.

There were 29 pieces of art valued at $121,850 that the school district claimed were located in schools and buildings that had been closed or sold.

There was no policy on care, storage and display of art items, nor was there an accurate inventory list.

Improper and inadequate recordkeeping, including the non-existence of any shipping and /or transfer documents.

Additionally, during the 2007 audit, the controller found that the district reduced the value of its artwork by $1.5 million, without a satisfactory explanation, and at least $400,000 in artwork is still unaccounted for in the school locations.

The school district said that the artwork in storage is being appropriately maintained with proper climate-control for both water- and oil-based paintings, an essential element to preserving such pieces. However, since Mr. Butkovitz has been denied access to the storage facility, this cannot be verified. When asked how could the district be trusted when it states that the art is in a climate-controlled facility, the Controller said “That is the question! Can the school district be trusted? Because of their refusal to cooperate, we cannot determine whether the art is in safe-keeping and all (artwork) can be accounted.”

Mr. Butkovitz was asked why his office has not yet issued subpoenas to gain access to the storage facilities. He responded that, “We are giving the new administration the benefit of the doubt and how they respond to our inquiries will determine what course of action we will take. I have hopes that this administration will work cooperatively with my office to insure that full disclosure and transparency.”

When asked if there are plans to revisit this issue with the new administration, Mr. Butkovitz answered a resounding “Yes … I plan to meet with the superintendent in the very near future and this is one of the items he would like to discuss with her.”

Several sources in the Nutter administration, who asked not to be identified, said that they were unaware of the missing artwork, and that it did not occur on their watch. However, after six months in office and with the issue being brought to their attention of over the next several weeks, the administration’s leaders will be held accountable by both the city controller’s office and The Bulletin.

Mr. Butkovitz added that “Philadelphia has a passion for the arts and we prize our cultural and artistic heritage. The art items in the possession of the Philadelphia School District record our cultural and artistic past. They do not belong to one individual or group. They belong to the people of Philadelphia. These works of art must be preserved and protected.”

Chris Freind can be reached at cf@thebulletin.us

©The Evening Bulletin 2008

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