Matthew Cooper grew up with those ideas ringing in his ears. So it was no surprise to his mother, Monica, that when the 17-year-old Kimball High junior found a stray $50 on campus, he turned it in to the school instead of pocketing the cash.
Many adults wouldn’t have been so upstanding.
“I didn’t want to keep it, because it might’ve been someone’s lunch money or grocery money for the day,” said Matthew Cooper on Oct. 29, a month after he first found the two 20s and a 10.
A teacher told him that he would be entitled to the money in two weeks if no one claimed it, so he turned it in at the office.
But when he returned to see if anyone had claimed the money, he and his mother said he was rudely surprised. According to Monica Cooper, who also spoke with me Oct. 29, the school said Matthew was entitled to only $20. The rest, she said, went to the school.
According to Jessica Cardoza, who responded to an inquiry last week on behalf of Tracy Unified School District, lost money was first turned in at Kimball High School on Feb. 4, 2011, which led to the drafting of a policy with the input of the school district and Tracy Police Department.
The resulting plan states that money turned in as lost is held, allowing the rightful owner a chance to claim the property. If no one can prove ownership, the finder is entitled to $20.
Cardoza explained that any cash above $20 is put into a special fund that helps other students.
“The balance was then put into a donation fund that directly benefits students, either by covering field trip expenses for students who could not afford to pay or other school-related expenses students would not have access to if they were not assisted,” she wrote Oct. 30. “Other examples have included the sitting fee for seniors so that their picture would be in the yearbook; we have assisted students who could not afford a cap and gown for graduation, etc.”
Worthy goals, to be sure. Charity is as much a foundation of civil society as integrity. The two often go hand in hand.
But there is no district policy regarding lost and found money, according to Cardoza, a fact discovered by Monica Cooper when she asked why the school was entitled to money to which it didn’t seem legally entitled.
It might not have been Matthew’s to begin with, she reasoned, but it wasn’t the school’s money, either.
So Monica Cooper contacted the Tracy Police Department — and found out she’s right.
Lt. David Sant confirmed that California’s civil code states that found property worth less than $100 becomes property of the finder if it remains unclaimed 90 days after being properly turned in.
After Sant got in touch with the school district regarding the law, district officials agreed Matthew Cooper would receive the full $50 after the waiting period elapsed, according to Cardoza.
That time is ticking away, as the money has reportedly still not been definitively claimed.
But Matthew Cooper said it’s not really about the money.
Speaking with eloquence, the football and wrestling star who happens to rock a 3.8 GPA while taking Advanced Placement courses said it’s a matter of principle.
In his view, Kimball failed to live up to the standards it sets for its students: Students are expected to turn in what they find, but Kimball doesn’t feel bound to fully respect the honorable intentions of the finders.
“I think the school should lead the students how they expect us to lead,” he said.
Leaving aside the letter of the law, which seems to be in Matthew Cooper’s favor, I don’t think the problem with the $50 kerfuffle is the spirit of Kimball’s policy. It’s communication.
A program with the noble idea of turning found cash into opportunities for less-fortunate students — while still offering some measure of monetary reward for those with the character to turn in the money — I think would find broad-based appeal. Even with Matthew Cooper.
“Everything would have been different if they would have told me what it was being spent on, rather than just being thrown into the general fund,” he said.
Proof, once again, that good communication can prevent problems.
But judging from Matthew Cooper’s experience, teachers didn’t seem aware of the lost and found procedure. Students certainly weren’t.
That made it look like the school was making up rules on the fly with less than honorable motivations. It left wide open the possibility for a student to feel jilted.
At least school district administrators should be commended for treating seriously a small issue with wide ethical implications.
Cardoza wrote that Student Services and Curriculum Director Paul Hall is busy crafting a lost and found policy that will be presented to trustees for approval, with the goal of replacing the school-by-school patchwork now in place. I’ve heard it will be clear and reflect the civil code.
That kind of response shows integrity, too. And hopefully, it restores some measure of faith for Matthew Cooper.
• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by Editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.