Finger-painted masterpieces are precious to parents, but lately many schools are realizing that some of the artwork adorning their walls for decades is worthy of wider attention.

In Philadelphia, school officials recently announced that the district is home to nearly 1,200 pieces of fine art--paintings, murals, sculptures--worth an estimated $30 million. The collection includes works by Henry Ossawa Tanner, N.C. Wyeth and local boy Thomas Eakins, who was fond of painting portraits of principals.

"Eakins is one of our most important American painters," says Nora Heimann, an art historian at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "If you picked a handful of great American painters, Eakins rises right to the top."

Paul Vallas, CEO of the Philadelphia district, brought the idea of taking stock of school art with him from his previous job as superintendent in Chicago. An inventory there during the mid-1990s uncovered about $20 million worth of art. The Los Angeles school district recently completed a four-year survey of its 85,000-piece collection of art and objects that turns out to be worth about $30 million. Schools in Boston and Pittsburgh now are hunting behind the trophy cases for masterpieces.

"School districts and cities across the country are finding that they, too, may be sitting on an incredible collection that needs to be rediscovered and then protected," says Kathleen Bernhardt-Hidvegi of Corporate Art Source, which performed the Philadelphia and Chicago inventories.

Up until World War II, it was fairly common for public schools to buy art, commission portraits or receive donations from alumni. Most such works were done by painters in their youth, a few of whom went on to become museum-quality. Today, a Tanner can fetch half a million dollars, but Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Philadelphia bought its Tanner back in 1937 for $35.

Governments haven't always shown the fortitude necessary to let art appreciate. Indeed, they are more likely to destroy holdings than care for them because of frequent changes in administration and competing priorities in budgeting. In some cases, art in the schools was not only neglected but kept in boiler rooms, basements and closets for which staff had a hard time finding the key. "Sometimes the corridor gets repainted during summer vacation," Bernhardt-Hidvegi says. "The art is taken down, put into storage and never goes up again."

Whether hidden or on display, neighborhood schools don't offer the most hospitable climate for an Eakins. In steamy Philadelphia, schools are mostly closed and not air-conditioned during the summer--just one of the preservation issues the district suddenly finds itself confronting. An advisory panel will weigh ideas about storage, how to use the works for art education and whether licensing reproductions could help pay for restoration.

The Chicago district published a catalog of its holdings and lent a work by E. Martin Hemmings to the Art Institute of Chicago for temporary display. In Bucks County, just outside of Philadelphia, the local school district has partnered for the past several years with the James A. Michener Art Museum to preserve and store its Pennsylvania impressionists, collected by a postwar superintendent who believed visual art should be part of students' daily lives.

The museum stores the paintings that aren't being shown, performs necessary preservation and helps educate both students and teachers about the works the district owns. The staff has secured $175,000 in state and federal grants for its "Art on the Move" program to bring and explain art to local students. In 1999, it held an exhibition based on the schools' collection, with text panels written by the kids.

In Philadelphia, now that the art has been found, a lot of it has been moved--in keeping with the spirit of the times--to a secure, undisclosed location. "It's great that we found this fantastic art collection, but now that we know it's there, we have some responsibility to secure it and preserve it," says district spokesman Fernando Gallard. "It's a nice problem to have."