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PORTLAND — After several hours of discussion, the School Committee last week voted 6-3 for a $1.3 million plan to buy more than 2,100 Dell netbook computers high school students.
The plan also includes buying the nearly 1,200 Apple iBooks now used in the middle schools, which are being replaced by the state, and redistributing them to the city’s elementary schools.
The $1.3 million will be partly funded over the next two years by federal grants totaling $725,000. Nearly $465,000 in funding is expected to come from a citywide technology bond, while more than $11,000 will have to be found in next year’s budget.
Funding for the plan now hinges on the City Council.
Three committee members said they voted against the initiative because they wanted more time to search for creative solutions to the district’s technology deficiency. They also wanted to see if the City Council will actually borrow the money for technology, since a bond was intended for this year, but was delayed because of the economy.
“I think it’s a little premature to move forward with this,” said committee member Jaimey Caron. “There is no more important thing than to understand where the money is going. At the end of the day, we can’t do anything if we don’t have the money.”
Committee member Kate Snyder, who leads the finance subcommittee, said the district could lose $4 million in state education funding over the next two years. Snyder said updating the district’s technology is an important objective, but so is addressing school facility problems, class sizes and curriculum.
“To me, laptops are no more or less important than the other needs,” Snyder said.
Committee member Marnie Morrione joined Caron and Synder in voting against the proposal.
While acknowledging the district’s financial difficulties, committee member Justin Costa urged support for the proposal, saying if the committee doesn’t act now, it may not act in the future.
“I think this is one of the most important things we could possibly do,” Costa said. “If we don’t do it now, we won’t be able to do it with $4 million less.”
Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. proposed the netbook plan after the district failed to get a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would have allowed Portland to participate in the Maine Laptop Initiative, which would have bought Apple MacBooks at a cost of $2.3 million.
Morse said the district needs to think of technology as an on-going capital expense. There are computers in the district that are more than a decade old, he said.
“We need to think about technology like (we think about) buses; it’s a recurring cost,” Morse said. “You have to anticipate those costs and this is the beginning of that process.”
School technology coordinator Joseph Makley said that, even though the district is not buying into the state initiative, the state will cover the $100,000 cost of installing wireless technology at Portland, Deering, Casco Bay and Portland Arts and Technology high schools. Also, staff will be able to participate in state training seminars at no cost.
Morse said the district must wait until the City Council approves its capital budget later this month before the computers can be purchased. After that, Makley said the computers will gradually be introduced into the classroom.