Loss of federal waiver could be 'lethal blow' to laptop computers for Portland high school students

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PORTLAND — City schools may not be able to participate in a statewide initiative to expand the laptop computer program to the city’s 2,200 high school students. 

Participation in the program depended on the district securing a waiver from federal education officials to allow use of Title I stimulus money for the program. But federal education officials denied the waiver request last week. 

The Portland School Committee voted in support of expanding the Maine Laptop Initiative, which originally provided laptop computers only to middle school students.

The proposal would have also placed about 1,800 laptops in elementary schools, since the current middle school laptops are being replaced and the School Department planned on buying the old ones. 

The cost of both initiatives, however, must be shouldered by individual communities. DOE Commissioner Susan Gendron was optimistic that federal officials would grant the waiver and asked Portland to commit to the program. The committee voted nearly three weeks ago to join the program, contingent on the federal waiver.  

Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said he is not aware of what led to the U.S. Department of Education decision.

“We’re not sure what happened, except that it seems upon review, USDE staff were convinced the rules would not allow it,” he said. 

The Maine Laptop Initiative is expected to cost Portland more then $2.1 million over the next four years. That investment includes installing wireless computer networks at both Deering and Portland high schools, training, software licenses and technical support.

The waiver would have allowed $1.8 million in stimulus funds earmarked for low-income students to cover the first two years of costs. Portland, where more than 40 percent of the student population is considered low-income by state standards, would have had to provide as much as $1.5 million, including $528,000 in each of the fiscal 2012 and 2013 budgets.

Superintendent of Schools James Morse Sr. said there is now little hope Portland will be able to participate in the high school computer program.

“It’s pretty serious blow,” Morse said. “And it could be a lethal blow.”

Connerty-Marin said state officials are committed to finding creative ways for Portland’s three high schools to participate. One proposal would require identifying areas within the current budget that could be paid for using Title I stimulus funds, which are used to help low-income students. The freed-up money could then be used to participate in the program.

“We have learned that schools cannot get a waiver for the use of Title I funds, but the USDE encouraged districts to use stabilization funds for technology,” he said. “The idea would be to help them utilize all fund sources appropriately in a way that frees up stabilization funds for the laptops.”

Morse said city staff are in the process of examining the budget to see if money can be shifted to allow the district to participate.

“The money in Portland is pretty heavily spoken for and is not easy to move around,” he said. 

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said increasing access to computers for high school students is an important issue for the committee. Eglinton said he was disappointed the waiver was rejected and was not optimistic about finding enough money in the current budget to participate. However, he said the committee’s new multi-year budgeting may help address the need for technology in classrooms.

“Expanding the use of computers in the school district is important, and the Maine Laptop Initiative represented a good opportunity for jump-starting our efforts,” Eglinton said. “Funding remains a significant obstacle, particularly in these tough economic times.”

He added, “I do not see much, if any, flexibility in the budget, but (Morse) and the staff may be able to identify options that are not apparent to me.”

However, Morse, who took over the superintendent’s post on July 1, said he is cautious about wading into anything resembling creative budgeting that may put the district at financial risk.

“This is a budget I did not create so I want to be extra cautious,” he said. “It’s a balancing act of being fiscally responsible verses ‘wouldn’t  it be nice if we could implement this program this year.'”

Morse said any new proposal would go before the School Committee in August. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net